DONAL LENIHAN: A period of reflection is now required

“Four more years ......” Those immortal words whispered into New Zealand scrum-half Justin Marshall’s ear by his Wallaby counterpart George Gregan when Australia beat the All Blacks in the 2003 Rugby World Cup semi-final came flooding into my mind at the final whistle in Cardiff yesterday.

At least New Zealand were striving to make it to another decider that day back in Sydney. For Ireland the quest for a first semi-final remains agonsingly beyond our reach again.

Six quarter-final appearances. Six defeats. Four more years of waiting, hoping and dreaming.

The last time Ireland contested a World Cup quarter-final at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon, Australia broke our hearts with a dramatic, gut-wrenching, last-minute try from Michael Lynagh.

Wales repeated the dose in Wellington four years ago with a merited win against an Irish side that failed to seize their moment after topping our World Cup Pool for the first time. Another opportunity gone a-begging.

If Lynagh shattered the dream with less than a minute to play on that horrible Sunday back in 1991, the writing was on the wall in this decider after only 10 minutes. By that stage Argentina had 14 points on the board, registering two spectacular converted tries after sprinting out of the blocks.

Given that Argentina had eased their way into this contest after dishing out successive hammerings to Namibia, Tonga and Georgia there was a feeling that they might be a little undercooked or possibly off the pace coming into this one. No such luck.

With the facility to rest the vast majority of their strongest side last time out against Namibia, 10 of the Pumas side came into this contest fresh and sharp after a fortnight off.

They proved irresistible in that opening period. Ireland just couldn’t cope with the pace and width they brought to proceedings from the off and their defensive structure, the tenet of the Joe Schmidt era, was ripped to shreds.

You can speculate all you like about the void in leadership and experience without Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien but on the evidence of this performance you have to acknowledge that, in all probability, Argentina would still have won.

The opening 10 minutes proved the perfect storm for them with a magnificently constructed try from centre Matias Moroni, only in the side due to the suspension of the highly influential Marcelo Bosch, after a succession of big carries from the monstrous Tomas Lavanini and Pablo Matera, both only 22 years of age. They had already set down a marker.

To follow that up with a ball against the head from the opening scrum had Ireland scrambling as the Argentine front five literally picked up the Irish pack and drove them backwards with worrying ease.

It suited their psyche and their uniquely formed Bajada scrum that Ireland had the first put-in as it enabled them to exert all their energies in a massive concerted drive. Ireland were reeling.

After the nightmare of that opening period, you felt an Irish win would require some divine intervention. The arrival of Luke Fitzgerald off the bench, after yet another ugly looking injury to Tommy Bowe, all but delivered that when he scored a spectacular try before the break and then set up a second for Jordi Murphy in the key moments after the restart.

From 14 points down to a margin of just three, four minutes into the second half, offered real hope as the courage, character and conviction of this Irish side shone through once again. But alas that was as close as it got.

One has to acknowledge also that the quality of rugby produced by Argentina, the range and subtlety of their passing and their ability to create overlaps and mismatches was at a different level to what Ireland delivered.

The fear coming into this one was that the harsh lessons that Argentina were forced to absorb in the early days of the Rugby Championship - when they were on the receiving end of some embarrassing defeats from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand - were not only taken on board but acted upon.

In an ironic twist of fate Ireland also contributed to their own downfall yesterday. 16 months ago they went on a two-test tour of Argentina where the host nation were forced to select a clutter of promising young home-based players due to the fact that many of their more experienced French-based stars were unavailable.

The likes of Lavinini and Matera, 20-year-old second row Guido Petti Pagadizaval, tight-head prop Herrera and a number of others were dumped in at the deep end against an experienced Ireland side. To their credit they learned to swim very quickly. Ireland may well have won that series 2-0 but in the long run have been the big losers while this Argentine side has the capacity to get better and better.

Ireland blew France away last weekend due primarily to their excellence at the breakdown. In this respect the loss of O’Mahony and O’Brien was always going to be felt in this key facet of combat but nobody anticipated just how dominant and physically superior Argentina would be. That work laid the foundation for this comprehensive win.

After much speculation as to the closing of the gap between the quality of rugby played on both sides of the equator, European rugby took a hammering this weekend.

New Zealand ruthlessly exposed the glaring shortcomings of the French with far more ease than any of their Six Nations opponents have managed in recent times.

By the end of that quarter-final on Saturday night, France were a disorganised rabble.

Argentina played with the pace, flair and exuberance of the French teams of 20 years ago and were full value for their win while the injury ravaged Welsh deserved more against a horribly one dimensional South African side.

Amazingly Scotland were the ones who looked most capable of striking a blow for northern hemisphere rugby with a quality performance from start to finish against Australia yesterday.

Once again however, just as they did in Dublin 24 years ago, Australia found a way - with that last-ditch penalty from Bernard Foley securing their passage to the last four.

A period of reflection is now required for Irish rugby. The quality of rugby delivered on the back of a limited attacking blueprint has proved sufficient to land silverware in successive seasons with back-to-back Six Nations triumphs.

New Zealand’s World Cup winning coach Graham Henry delivered the stark reality to Argentine rugby authorities when acting in a consultancy role that unless they addressed their attacking shortcomings and unwillingness to offload, they would face a grim time in the Rugby Championship.

They took that on board and have not looked back since. With a very young team to work with, they will only get better in the years to come.

It has been a very difficult week for the Irish squad with the satisfaction derived from that gutsy win over France outweighed by the injury fallout.

The reality is that, while our strength in depth is probably the strongest it has ever been, it is still insufficient to deal with the gruelling demands imposed by a World Cup.

Waking up this morning will be difficult for the Irish squad as the stark reality hits the players that the dream is over.

Four more years...

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