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Why can’t Ireland get past the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals?

More than any other Rugby World Cup exit, this one feels like a golden chance missed on so many levels

Nobody died. A brilliant Irish team just lost a game of rugby and they died with their boots on. As with France, there was more honour in this Irish Rugby World Cup quarter-final exit than any of the previous seven. Over the last two years they have become a team to engender pride and continued to do so until the last throes of their 28-24 defeat by the All Blacks on Saturday night. And there are more important things and far greater suffering in the world.

Yet, and the same is probably true of Les Bleus, it has never felt so difficult to grasp and come to terms with another quarter-final exit, because the overriding feeling was, well, if not now, then when?

For the third time in the last four World Cups, Ireland have topped their pool with four wins from four, beating Australia, France and this time South Africa, in perhaps Ireland’s greatest ever World Cup victory, and still the outcome is the same.

There will be questions asked about putting out close to first-choice sides in five games over six weeks, about the relative lack, ultimately, of real innovation in attack, but much of this is with the benefit of hindsight and is scoreboard analysis.


One abiding thought is that the All Blacks were so stung by last year’s series defeat at home that not only did Joe Schmidt tailor their game accordingly against Ireland, but that the fear of failure brought out an intensity and a willingness to make 276 tackles, of which a staggering 100 were in the final quarter.

In a Sunday morning debrief with the media, Scott McLeod also revealed that the All Blacks had to learn a different tackle technique in readiness for Ireland’s attacking game, ie away from their normal habit of defending the man to defending the ball.

Still, though, would anyone swap a series win in New Zealand and/or a first Grand Slam coronation in Dublin in Johnny Sexton’s last Six Nations game for a place in the semi-finals? Surely not. But, of course, the problem with this quarter-final defeat is that, as with the French, it surely never offered a more gilt-edged opportunity of reaching a final. What that would have done for Irish rugby is hardly worth thinking about.

It just feels like a golden chance missed, all the more so after Ireland had compiled the third longest winning sequence in the history of Test rugby.

As Jonathan Liew wrote in the Guardian on Monday: “You strive for four years, put a plan together, beat the best in the world, and none of this protects you from heartbreak.”

When is an Irish team ever going to go into a quarter-final with the same momentum and body of work as this one?

This latest last eight exit will invariably beg the question, why can’t Ireland get past the quarters? Did Michael Lynagh’s try at the end of the 1991 quarter-final cast a spell on Irish rugby forever more? With each passing four years, has it become a monkey on the back of successive Irish teams?

Everything about this Irish team suggested they were calmness personified, that they betrayed all the characteristics of their head coach Andy Farrell, and that it was no longer an issue. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe it was just the bad luck of the draw, the same bad luck that did for France.

No less than the outraged Fijians at the end of their match with England, Wales harboured misgiving about some decisions in their defeat by Argentina (and particularly the lack of a red card for Thomas Lavanini), as did Ireland and France with Wayne Barnes and Ben O’Keeffe.

Antoine Dupont was more forceful in expressing his disappointment with refereeing, which he said was not up to the standard required and there’s no doubt that far too many decisions, especially at scrums and the breakdown, are swayed by an individual referee’s interpretations.

Barnes could have given penalties on at least two occasions against either team in Ireland’s late 37-phase drive before deciding that Sam Whitelock had legally won the final, decisive penalty, when other referees might reasonably have decreed that he didn’t release. Inconsistency is the biggest problem in the game today.

But likewise, whether or not this Irish team was carrying some form of mental baggage will also be down to an individual’s interpretation. Those who believe it to be true will cite Johnny Sexton’s missed penalty or the knock-on by Caelan Doris as examples to substantiate their case.

Those who don’t believe it to be so will merely content that missed penalties and knock-ons happen in every game. Perhaps only the players themselves or Gary Keegan know. Perhaps not even they do.

However, whether slightly or largely imagined, it has long since become a ‘thing’, and therein lies one of the biggest disappointments or anticlimactic aspects of this latest World Cup final defeat. Hence, that hoary old chestnut about glass ceilings will remain a ‘thing’ for another four years.

Andy Farrell admitted this was ‘the end’ for this team, and certainly in the context of a World Cup, that is as true as ever. At 28.1, Ireland’s squad had the second highest average age at this World Cup, behind only South Africa (29.1). Ireland had 17 thirtysomethings, South Africa have 19.

Sexton and Keith Earls have already now retired, and by 2027 James Lowe, Bundee Aki, Jamison Gibson-Park, Conor Murray, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Robbie Henshaw will all be in their mid-30s at least.

And, of course, the next tournament will be in Australia, not a two-hour flight from home, and there will be no Johnny.

The World Cup felt like now or never, maintenant ou jamais, for Ireland and France. Last weekend those dreams died, and France 2023 lost its hosts and best supported visiting team. In the ultimate irony, boring England, the land of Brexiteers, are flying the flag for Europe as the tournament’s only unbeaten side. Much of the fizz from le Mondial has gone.