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Denis Walsh: Bruised Ireland can recover from unique Rugby World Cup failure

Andy Farrell can take Ireland forward after a quarter-final elimination unlike any other

In the 1990 movie The Grifters there is a famous scene where Anjelica Huston’s character Lily Dillon is alone in a room with Pat Hingle’s character Bobo Justus, expecting to be subjected to some kind of punishment beating. Bobo has arrived with a bag of oranges and he tells Lily to get a towel.

“Tell me about the oranges,” Bobo says to Lily. Both of them are in the business of pulling cons, and they both know that it’s an old hack for insurance scams.

“You hit a person with the oranges wrapped in a towel they get big, ugly bruises but you don’t really get hurt – not if you do it right,” Lily says.

“And if you do it wrong?” says Bobo.


“It can louse up your insides,” says Lily, stammering with terror. “You can get p-p-p-permanent damage.”


It might be too soon to say this, while the bruises are fresh still and raw, but this is the first time Ireland have left a Rugby World Cup without their insides loused up. Think about it. The first three tournaments were in the amateur era, when Ireland were among the world leaders in amateurism, and there were no meaningful grounds for optimism.

The 1999 tournament was the first to end in gut-wrenching, soul-searching calamity and, since then, every World Cup exit has felt consequential and harmful.

In our memories outcomes survive like plastic and contexts degrade like fruit. Ireland’s record in World Cup quarter-finals are warehoused in a small thought bubble, without discrimination. The first impulse was to dump the latest one with all the rest. This time, that would be wrong.

Remember what some of the others were like? In 2003 Ireland trailed France 27-0 at half-time; in 2015 Ireland trailed Argentina 20-0 after 22 minutes; in 2019 Ireland trailed New Zealand 22-0 at half-time, and 34-0 midway through the second half. Ireland lost those three quarter-finals by a total of 77 points.

Ireland’s loss to Wales in the 2011 quarter-final felt worse than a 12-point defeat. Having trailed by 10-0, Ireland got it back to level and didn’t score again. “Once they go two scores ahead it’s good night,” wrote Brian O’Driscoll in his autobiography. When that happened, there were still 16 minutes on the clock. Ireland had nothing left.

In his autobiography Donncha O’Callaghan summarised that game in stark terms: “Our fundamentals started to crack. We were being penalised in the scrum, we lost a couple of lineouts, we were conceding turnovers at the breakdown ... In the end, we panicked. We didn’t play like a team with hundreds of caps between us. On one of the biggest days in our rugby lives, we crashed.”

The Ireland team that lost the quarter-final 10 days ago were faced with hand-me-down elements of those other failures: lineout malfunctions, penalised in the scrum, frustrated at the breakdown, started slowly, shipped scoreboard pressure; wobbled.

The critical, shining difference was their response. In the biggest game of this team’s existence, they didn’t bring their A game and straight away that was the over-arching test: ‘How are we going to cope now?’ In elite sport, though, high performance is not just about having your best stuff on command; it is about what you do without it.

In those circumstances, Ireland’s resistance and resilience were extraordinary. They found themselves not just fighting the All Blacks, but in a battle with themselves to pull something together. For generations of Irish players, not having their best stuff against New Zealand would have resulted in an unmerciful beating, inevitably.

They didn’t win and they didn’t fold. Every Irish team before them in the professional era has folded at the World Cup. That is not a consolation. No consolation is available. By their own metric, they failed.

But this was the first Irish squad at a World Cup who were convinced they could win the tournament, and that was a quantum leap in their psyche. Other talented squads, stretching back to 2007, had thrashed out the aspiration among themselves and tried to make themselves believe it. But there was no sense that their conviction had reached a critical mass.

There is no way Ireland could have played as they did against South Africa and New Zealand if they weren’t operating with an elevated mentality. In his autobiography Paul O’Connell reflected on the 2007 World Cup, where Ireland failed to get out of their pool. “The bottom line,” he wrote “is that when the pressure came on, we had no way of fixing our problems.” This Irish team demonstrated that empowering capacity to cope.

So, what happens next? Remember what happened after other World Cups. Going into the 2007 tournament, “Eddie O’Sullivan,” wrote O’Connell, “was the most successful coach Ireland had ever had”, an accolade that was of its time. O’Sullivan had delivered three Triple Crowns and been pipped for the Six Nations title twice on points difference. Six months after that tournament, though, O’Sullivan was forced out.

Before the 2011 tournament, Declan Kidney had plausible claims to be the most successful Irish coach of all-time (a Grand Slam and two Heineken Cups); 18 months later he was out too, having presided over a Six Nations defeat in Rome and Ireland’s descent to ninth in the world rankings.

There was no question about Joe Schmidt’s status as the most successful Irish coach ever (a Grand Slam, two other Six Nations titles, led Ireland to number one in the world, a first Test victory over New Zealand, and two Heineken Cups). But Schmidt was never staying on after the 2019 tournament, and by that year the music had died anyway.

After this World Cup no such destabilising flux is on the horizon. Andy Farrell has already shown his ability to build a team. Starting again without Johnny Sexton leaves a cavernous hole to fill, but Farrell and his lieutenants will be energised by that challenge. His immediate predecessors had many fine qualities, but none of them had Farrell’s talent to bind people. That is priceless.

This was Ireland’s first World Cup as contenders. Other Irish teams lost at World Cups because, ultimately, they didn’t believe they could win. That’s not what happened here. In time, people will recognise the goodness in that difference.

The bruises will fade. No permanent damage was done. Maybe it is too soon to dwell on the future and renewed hope. Put the feeling in your back pocket. Don’t lose it.