A victory for bravery, a defeat reeking of stagnation

A victory for bravery, a defeat reeking of stagnation
New Zealand's Sevu Reece is defended by Ireland's Johnny Sexton during the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match at Tokyo Stadium between New Zealand and Ireland in Tokyo, Japan, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Jae Hong).

What is it about Ireland and World Cups? Right now it feels like a marriage made in hell.

Once again we have come up short while our Six Nations brethren England and Wales march on to another semi-final with France gifting Warren Gatland’s men a place in the last four.

We dared to hope there was a big performance in this Irish side and while acknowledging the odds were against Joe Schmidt’s men from the minute the shock defeat to Japan put his side on a collision course with New Zealand, recent history suggested this Irish party were better equipped to deal with that challenge than any of their predecessors.

Unfortunately, that proved wildly inaccurate as the gulf in class appeared wider than ever. New Zealand started with a whirlwind of activity that had Ireland on the back foot, with the opening ten minutes offering a frightening glimpse of the carnage that lay ahead.

Ireland were blown away as New Zealand delivered an awesome display of raw power and aggressive physicality to a sublime skill set and unwavering accuracy in everything they did.

Right now it feels as if those historic wins over the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016 and at the Aviva Stadium last year only served to poke the bear. That defeat in Dublin stirred a giant. Steve Hansen carried out a thorough root and branch review of his All Black squad less than a year out from this World Cup and read the tea leaves.

He recognised something had to change to have any chance of retaining the Webb Ellis Cup. Ireland bore the brunt of those musings and it will be fascinating to see if England— so impressive in their thorough dismantling of Australia in thequarter-final— have the mix of skill and power to compete on an equal footing with Hansen’s charges. That will be some contest.

New Zealand were ruthless in their dismissal of Ireland and we couldn’t live with them. For Schmidt and Rory Best, two incredible servants to Irish rugby who Hansen graciously acknowledged in his opening remarks at the post-match press conference, this was a horrible way for their journey together to end.

Schmidt’s career at the helm of Irish rugby has been all about firsts. First-ever win over New Zealand, first win over the Springboks on South African soil, first coach to lead Ireland to the No 1 ranked side in world rugby, a Six Nations championship in his first season at the helm.

All those achievements were mere stepping stones en route to what he really craved — a first-ever World Cup semi final appearance. Sadly, just like his coaching predecessors in this tournament, Mick Doyle, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Gerry Murphy, Warren Gatland, Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney, that step proved a bridge too far once again.

Unlike four years ago in Cardiff, when his injury-ravaged side was blown away by Argentina, there are no excuses attaching to this harrowing defeat. Bundee Aki apart, Ireland went into this quarter-final with a clean bill of health, a very experienced side with more caps than New Zealand, yet were blown away by a dazzling display of rugby that looked alien to us.

In advance of the game you felt everything would have to go right for Ireland to have any chance of winning. When pretty much the opposite happens, you have no chance whatsoever. Ireland were pummelled from the outset and had no response to the awesome power, unrelenting physicality and clinical precision that New Zealand delivered from the start to finish.

More than anything, this was a victory for bravery. Not just on the field of play but in the New Zealand coaching box. Hansen and his coaches changed tack six months out from the World Cup and had the courage of their convictions to back themselves even when hitting severe turbulence when losing to Australia and drawing at home to South Africa in the Rugby Championship. They were handsomely rewarded.

We dared to hope that the inexperienced combination of George Bridge and Sevu Reese on the wings along with other comparative rookies in out half Richie Mo’unga and centre Jack Goodhue offered a route for Ireland to expose weaknesses that we weren’t even sure existed.

That never came to pass as all four were magnificent. Hansen claimed during the week that his New Zealand side was now run by adventure and a lack of fear with youthful exuberance driving the attack. He was spot on. Despite the fact that Ireland were on the receiving end, they were a joy to watch.

Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by Jack Goodhue, left, with Sam Cane of New Zealand during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final match between New Zealand and Ireland at the Tokyo Stadium in Chofu, Japan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile.
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by Jack Goodhue, left, with Sam Cane of New Zealand during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final match between New Zealand and Ireland at the Tokyo Stadium in Chofu, Japan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile.

When you lose the collisions like Ireland did against a team with the pace and athleticism of this New Zealand side, you are in serious trouble. A relentless physical onslaught at the breakdown that delivered quick ball on a plate for their outstanding scrum half Aaron Smith, coupled with the creative genius and lightning pace of Beauden Barrett proved far too hot for Ireland to handle.

Ireland were forced into error, not by greasy conditions, the heat or humidity but the sheer pressure exerted by New Zealand from the first minute to the last. To have any chance against them, you have to be accurate in everything you do. New Zealand didn’t allow that to happen. They smashed everything that moved, in some instances regardless of whether the Irish man had the ball or not.

New Zealand looked at Ireland’s strengths, be it their set piece solidity, the maul, their aggressive carrying, their kicking game or line speed in defense and found a way to nullify every aspect of their play. It was a victory for their coaching team with Ireland’s predictable game plan picked to pieces by a team keen to lay down a marker from the outset of this knockout phase.

They were evolving through the course of a truncated Rugby Championship this summer, while Ireland stagnated badly throughout 2019. The signs were there in the defeats to England and Wales in the Six Nations championship but nothing changed. Teams have worked Ireland out.

Looking back four weeks, it’s transpired that the impressive opening display in the comprehensive win over Scotland was more a reflection on how poor a Gregor Townsend’s side were, the defeat by Japan a reflection on Ireland’s shortcomings.

Despite the fact that the set piece functioned quite well, Ireland never got on the front foot. Every carrier was met on the gain line and driven backwards. On the flip side when New Zealand carried, they powered through the Irish tackle with Ardie Savea, Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and Codie Taylor proving impossible to contain.

Ireland missed 10 tackles in the opening half alone — 29 by the time final whistle blew — and the energy required to deliver Andy Farrell’s trademark line speed in defence was sadly lacking. New Zealand were in semi-final mode from early in the second half and made changes with their clash against England in mind.

Farrell now takes up the baton from Schmidt. He has a serious challenge on his hands with changes in personnel and style required to compete for honors again in the foreseeable future.

That can wait. Right now it’s time to lick our wounds, take stock of what has happened at this tournament and plot a route forward for the future. Everything to this point was geared towards success at the knockout phase of the World Cup.

Sadly we have come up well short on that front once again.

RWC Inquest podcast: How did a team so good at the ABCs become almost shambolic?

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