IF you are still feeling sick after Ireland’s massively disappointing exit from the World Cup, put yourself in the shoes of the long-suffering Scottish players and supporters for a brief second.
The manner in which they were denied an unlikely passage to a first semi-final appearance since 1991 is something that will to be debated and argued long after the Webb Ellis trophy is handed over to the victorious captain in 10 days’ time.
I was very surprised by the unprecedented declaration from World Rugby that referee Craig Joubert got that game-defining decision wrong — it should have been a scrum to Australia, not a penalty — as they normally stick by their man regardless. If anything it will make the Scots feel even worse.
This World Cup has been a resounding success on practically all fronts. The one caveat I have revolves around some poor officiating. That is inevitable to some degree given the number of close, high-quality games played over the course of the tournament.
In some respects Joubert has been hung out to dry by his governing body and from a human perspective I feel for him, especially in light of the fallout from his handling of the 2011 decider in New Zealand. I wonder if we will see him at this level again? Unfortunately I have a feeling a period on the International sevens circuit beckons for him.
That said, I feel greater sympathy for the Scottish players. Imagine if that had happened to us? At least Ireland were comprehensively beaten by Argentina and our players will harbour regrets of an entirely different kind for some time to come.
With the exception of South Africa who, as always, place a heavier reliance on brute force over sleight of hand, the semi-finalists have delivered the highest quality and best-balanced rugby, mixing massive physicality when required with the most subtle and creative attacking play.
New Zealand and Argentina played rugby from a different planet to that of their European counterparts over the weekend with Australia doing likewise in their key pool game against England in Twickenham.
If it transpires that Argentine captain Agustin Creevy was to emerge from left field and lift the Webb Ellis trophy on October 31, it would be absolutely brilliant for the game from a global perspective. Of the four sides left in contention, I would love to see them emerge triumphant as it would sent a message to sides like Ireland four years out from Japan — if they can do it, why can’t we?
What we have seen over the last five weeks is that risk-takers have been rewarded. Remember Japan? In that respect the magnificent weather that has accompanied the tournament around England has been a key element and, of course, the roof has been closed at the Millennium Stadium for all games played there.
As to Ireland’s calamitous exit on Sunday, I think that any of the Six Nations participants would have struggled to live with Argentina on the basis of that performance. The Pumas hit the ground running from the off and Ireland just couldn’t live with the tempo they delivered. They were rugby’s equivalent of a Maserati - 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds — while we appeared stranded behind the wheel of a Baby Ford.
We can speculate forever as to how much closer it would have been had Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien started up front while Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne proved serious losses behind the scrum. However in a game as attritional as rugby has become, you are living in cuckoo land if you think you are ever going to be in a position to field your strongest side.
The great pity for Ireland was that we had reached the point of the key French game in rude health before being hit with an injury epidemic on the eve of the quarter-final.
For that to happen was no coincidence however. I had been preaching over the opening weeks of our World Cup journey that the games against Canada, Romania and even Italy resembled a sideshow to the main event, the minor match before the seniors took the field.
The comparative lack of intensity and physicality in those contests minimised the injury toll but left us vulnerable to the high octane rugby that the likes of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand deliver as the norm.
The French would certainly deliver on the physical front, as we discovered given the rate of attrition after that contest, but they have become so one paced that Ireland were left ill-prepared for the whizz fest that Argentina produced.
By the time we got up to the pace of the game Ireland were 17 points behind. It says everything about the character within the side that they clawed their way back to within three points. Ian Madigan had the chance to level the scores, which would have proved a massive psychological boost, but failed to nail it. He learned the harsh reality of life at the very top of the tree last Sunday. Having watched with interest over the years how Ronan O’Gara and Sexton had to live with those clutch moments on the biggest stage, he now knows how much more demanding it is than the routine of the Pro 12 or even the Champions Cup.
The life of the place kicker is a lonely one — hero or zero — and it is impossible to prepare for that.
You simply have to experience it. Madigan has tasted that now, has the temperament to take it on board and come back stronger. It begs the question, however, with Sexton back in harness with Leinster, should he be moved to another province to remain as Ireland’s second choice No 10?
Sunday must have been a chastening experience for Joe Schmidt. He has been absolutely wonderful for the game in this country and Ireland would not have enjoyed their recent successes without the structure, clarity and organisation he has brought to our game.
He is a proud man and will be hurt by our shortcomings. He is a student of the game and I have no doubt will be greatly influenced by what he experienced over the last few weeks. A World Cup imposes a different set of demands. With at least two more years at the helm of this Irish squad — unless England poach him — I look forward to seeing in what direction he proposes to take this side.
The Six Nations is likely to be incredibly competitive as England will be on a mission to make up for their World Cup failings, while Scotland will be jumping out of their socks to build on a very positive World Cup campaign. Wales will prove as stubborn and as difficult to beat as ever and surely France, under new management, will be stung into action after their New Zealand humiliation.
After that, Schmidt has to deal with the challenge of preparing for a three test tour of South Africa next June before bringing an end to an exhaustive 12 months of continuous rugby.
The key difference between the rugby played by the two hemispheres was encapsulated in one sentence by Argentine coach Daniel Hourcade after his side’s magical performance against Ireland. He said: “Playing the best on a yearly basis (in the Rugby Championship) requires a level of perfection that you get used to. The message is always the same: to win we need to take risks.”
Ireland won back-to-back Six Nations titles playing no-risk rugby with the emphasis on precision in the tackle and contact area, minimising mistakes and a clear preference for retaining possession through a sequence of multi-phase rugby rather than offloading. It worked. We now know that to win a World Cup requires that bit more.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved