‘I’m unbelievably proud’: Farrell praises Ireland squad after heartbreaking Rugby World Cup exit

Sense of a missed opportunity will linger for a long, long time as All Blacks deny the prize of a semi-final against Argentina

About an hour and a half after the final whistle in a silent Irish dressing room, the players still hadn’t moved from their seats, still hadn’t taken a shower and were still trying to come to terms with probably the most heartbreaking defeat of their careers.

The music had long since stopped playing, the crowd had long since dispersed and the psychological wounds, the ending of the Rugby World Cup dream, was still raw. Given the prize of a semi-final against Argentina, the sense of a missed opportunity will linger for a long, long time.

To their credit, Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton conducted a dignified last ever press conference together and Peter O’Mahony, Dan Sheehan, Jack Conan, Iain Henderson and Josh van der Flier also fronted up.

“Sport can be cruel sometimes, I suppose that’s why we love it so much,” reflected the head coach. “My initial feeling is that I’m unbelievably proud of the group, how they handled themselves, not just today but all through the tournament, over the last couple of years. That will be my overriding feeling.”


They had “a different view” from the officials in penalising Ireland’s scrum three times, “but we don’t want to sit here and have sour grapes. We want to congratulate New Zealand on a fantastic performance. It was a fantastic game to be part of. It was probably fitting of a final.”

By contrast, Ian Foster was smugness personified as he spoke of Ireland’s “cut and paste” attack. Although many among the Kiwi media felt this was the best performance in his reign, Foster maintained their win at home to South Africa in July was a better performance and declined to pay tribute to Sexton, albeit Sam Cane did so generously.

The last person to emerge after New Zealand’s 28-24 win over Ireland – hailed by many neutrals as the best World Cup quarter-final ever – into the mixed zone in the bowels of the Stade de France nearing 1am local time was Paul O’Connell.

The legendary Irish lock harbours as many of Ireland’s World Cup scars as anybody. He played in four, including two quarter-finals, where Ireland came up short and is old enough to have watched all the others.

Suffering as a coach was a new one, and this was perhaps the worst of all simply because it was the best Irish team ever at a World Cup,

“Yeah. I don’t know,” said O’Connell, before admitting: “I haven’t felt this in a while.”

“I just felt when we were 13-0 down we still could have won it,” added the Irish forwards coach in one of six references to going “13-0 down”, which seemed telling in itself.

“We were still good enough to have won it, we still produced enough to win it. Being held up over the line is frustrating, a really good maul from the lads, they’ve put so much work into that part of the game,” he said in reference to the pivotal moment in the 72nd minute when Jordie Barrett managed to prevent Ronan Kelleher from grounding the ball.

But for that, Ireland would have gone ahead for the first time in the match, indeed for the first time in any quarter-final since 1995.

“Sometimes you go 13-0 down, you could say, ‘f**k, we just got off to a bad start’, and you never get back into it but we were back in it and I don’t think there was ever a point in the game where the lads felt they couldn’t do it.

“They always felt they could do it and that’s probably the annoying thing about it. But it is what it is and that’s sport. It’s tiny margins. I know it’s a cliche but it is really true and especially when you get to this stage and you’re playing teams of the quality of New Zealand, it is tiny margins. You need one or two things to go your way, especially when you go 13-0 down, and they probably didn’t.”

Farrell has proven himself an exceptional head coach with a strong team of assistants, and the core of the squad will be supplemented by some of the three Under-20 Grand Slam teams in the past four Six Nations as well as an Under-20 World Cup final.

“They’re fantastic and we get them really well coached, that’s the thing,” said O’Connell. “I think we’ve done a good job with the players, but the coaching at academy level is so well done, great coaching at Under-20s level and then in the provinces as well. We manage to do a lot of good work on the back of what goes on in the provinces and the way professional rugby in the IRFU is run.

“So hopefully that stream of talent continues; that stream of smart and talented players continues to come through for us.”

Of course, the immediate future will be without Sexton and Keith Earls and maybe others such as Peter O’Mahony, with the next World Cup probably beyond six more thirtysomethings, including Conor Murray and Bundee Aki.

The players had invoked the spirit of Chicago and that breakthrough win over the All Blacks in 2016 by forming the figure “8″ when facing the haka in memory of Anthony Foley. With Monday marking the seventh anniversary of Axel’s passing in Paris, it was entirely fitting.

“They’d all be very conscious of Anthony. The Munster lads and Pete [O’Mahony] in particular would be very conscious,” said O’Connell. “Around this time of year in October it all comes to our mind a little bit.

“It was the players’ idea and as coaches we were delighted because they want to inspire the nation, they want to have respect for the people who have gone before them as well. I think people will have identified what they did, enjoyed it and it would have been good for Anthony’s family as well.

“A lot of these guys are unbelievably professional, but they like a bit of old school as well; they like looking back on the old players, things like that. So, it’s a lovely mark of respect for Anthony that they did that today.”

O’Connell also hoped this team had indeed inspired the country.

“I think they have. I’d say they’re probably feeling like they’ve let everyone down now, but they love the connection with the supporters. They love that almost more than winning, I think.

“And we’ve generally won on the back of it. It’s something that means a lot to them and that they’ve really enjoyed. It’s just a pity in this important competition that we couldn’t kick on and create a bit of history along with it.”

Such a pity.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times