The disappointment is palpable, but it’s important to separate the lessons that need learning from the hysterical over-reaction in some quarters to Ireland’s World Cup exit, writes Ronan O’Gara.
I didn’t think disappointment as a supporter would nail me this hard, but it has. It seems somewhat surreal that in a World Cup quarter-final Ireland would never lead Argentina, and that they’d be at the butt-end of a bizarrely one-sided scoreline.
It’s noteworthy too that Ireland never led or levelled. That’s a key element of Joe Schmidt’s game structure and for certain, Argentina targetted the opening quarter.
Starting well on the scoreboard suits the really structured game Ireland play. But when we were forced to hunt tries in a hurry, we lost shape in attack, and seemed very narrow with the ball.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but you end up wondering about these things: Was the French pool game almost more important than the quarter-final in some people’s heads? Same stadium, same support, bigger stage. And yet, Ireland found themselves 17 points in arrears before they’d even started to go through the gears.
What people won’t understand is that when you’re a player, and you get crushed like that at the start, it’s very difficult to readjust. Compliments to Ireland for having the stomach to get themselves back in the game. But when a lot of the hard work was done, they went and essentially lost it again.
Madigan kicked the ball out, Conor Murray dropped the ball - most unlike him - at the back of a scrum. Two big turnovers around their own ten-yard line. Nowadays, with the way referees are officiating, having possession of the ball is fundamental. And we didn’t have it when and where it mattered at the Millennium Stadium.
The Monday Morning Quarterback in me keeps tripping over the same unavoidable facts:
1) I don’t believe we have the depth of squad to last over a seven-week tournament like the World Cup. Nor have we ever had. We can stretch to a Six Nations campaign but when the World Cup intensity was ratcheted up for the French and Argentina games, we were losing players at a rate we couldn’t sustain. The difference this time is they were The Undroppables. O’Connell, Sexton, O’Brien, O’Mahony. We have never had a better coach, and the squad has made massive progress but in this particular format, only the really strong squads can keep moving forward. We’re not there.
Laugh if you will, but we could do with a few of those Polynesian lads declaring for Ireland. The gap in terms of athleticism between northern Europeans and these wrecking balls is growing with every season. And that’s extending out into southern hemisphere combat.
2. We lost the collisions yesterday from the off. How many impact tackles did we make? We were soaking up all the tackles. If it’s a neutral tackle, you’ve some chance, if it’s an offensive tackle every chance. But if you are consistently conceding the gain line, you are in trouble.
3. The debate about the global rugby calendar will inevitably resurface, but no one was mentioning it in Ireland before the weekend. Doubtless, it bestows a momentum advantage on the four sides coming off the Rugby Championship, and in the next three to five years I would predict the business of rugby will dictate that a uniform calendar is on the table. The season will be structured in such a way that neither hemisphere has such a blatant advantage.
But is it going to ease Irish pain today?
The question that gnaws at me most revolves around the psychology of such defeats. It may be invisible, but there’s clearly a barrier there for Ireland to break through the World Cup quarter-final glass ceiling.
It would have been enormous for everyone associated with Irish rugby to break new ground and get to a World Cup semi-final. To break the southern hemisphere and be one of the Big Four. Even if you lose at that stage, you could accept it and see progress in cold, statistical terms.
Now, the consensus around the world will be that Ireland are perennial chokers. And some will even stupidly argue that we haven’t moved on since 2011, that our exit four years ago was more gallant than Sunday’s defeat to Argentina.
Of course we’ve moved on. Hugely. So we roll our eyes and bite our lip. It’s a long road now to Japan and the opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.
Nicolas Sanchez was in spectacular form at the Millennium Stadium, but I assure you, that’s not his norm. I’ve been watching him with Bordeaux and Toulon in the Top 14, and if you walked in off the street into any of those games, there’s no way you’re picking him out as an international ten.
But that’s the key with Argentina. collective strength - and unity of purpose and talent. They love playing for their country, and their massive squad spirit is only enhanced by spending three months together in the build up to the World Cup, and the bones of two more months now competing in it. There is more than rugby connecting these lads.
The key point here is that all the northern hemisphere nations are capable of beating their southern hemisphere counterparts in a one-off, but the consistency the four World Cup semi-finalists accumulate from playing in the Rugby Championship gives them a distinct advantage.
Look at the progress Argentina have made in a pretty short space of time. They realised they had to upskill to compete, because their kicking pressure game would get laughed at in the Rugby Championship. They had to suffer pain for a while. Now they are adapting their game plan, keeping runners out wide in the 15m channel and coming off the ball, keeping it better.
They had no choice but to sink or swim in that competition, and they’ve adapted. You’ve always had the best three teams in the world in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Now we have a new force at the top table.
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