Once again the wheat has been separated from the chaff at a World Cup and Ireland have been swept away in the clean-up. At the ninth time of asking, despite a professional model rated as best-in-class, even by the world superpowers, we have been left on the outside looking in.
It’s an ongoing source of embarrassment that we remain the only one of the five home nations never to play in a World Cup semi-final. From the moment Ireland lost to Japan, the prospect of breaking that sequence became less likely given we had been put on a collision course to meet New Zealand.
While that was always going to be difficult, our history against the world champions in the four-year cycle since they retained the World Cup in London suggested that we would, at the very least, be competitive against them.
The fact Ireland were blown away with such consummate ease, to lose by a record margin at a World Cup, gave us an insight into how many of the Tier 2 nations feel when pitted against the big boys. New Zealand dealt with Ireland in the same manner we had dispatched Samoa in that final pool game in Fukuoka.
On the evidence of their performance in the last of the quarter-finals last Sunday, the Springboks, our preferred opponents in the last eight, would have dismissed us with equal efficiency even if they don’t possess anything like the attacking threat posed by New Zealand.
Once again on the world stage, the Irish travelled in their thousands to create a raucous and moving backdrop for the Irish players as they warmed up on the lush surface. The roar that greeted the players as they left the pitch for the dressing room after completing their pre-match routine was inspirational.
Captivated by the emotion, we dared to dream that this was the night this talented Irish squad, that had produced so many memorable moments over the last few seasons, would finally reveal their true selves after an underwhelming 2019.
Unfortunately once Saturday’s quarter-final kicked off, Ireland couldn’t conjure a single phase in the opening half that would enable the willing Irish support to make their presence felt. It has to be a two-way process but with the Irish ball carriers being driven back in every collision, all that was left for the green army to do was to sit back and admire the artistry, athleticism, and silken skills of the men in black.
In doing so New Zealand sent a stark message to England, who they meet in Yokohama this Saturday. Eddie Jones appreciates more than most that England will have to be pretty faultless in all aspects of their play if they are to dethrone the champions.
That said, their highly impressive performance against Australia suggests that they will make a far better fist of it than Ireland did. They have a variety to their game to ask questions of New Zealand that, for some reason, Ireland were incapable of.
It’s been a torrid year for Joe Schmidt. For a team used to winning and competing on equal terms with the best the game had to offer in 2018, suffering comprehensive defeats to England (twice), Wales, Japan, and New Zealand has been difficult to watch, the manner of those defeats the most disappointing aspect.
Ireland had been building towards winning a quarter-final since beating New Zealand in November 2018.
Making a first ever World Cup semi-final had become all-consuming, focusing on a spot on the distant horizon rather than the one immediately in sight. Rory Best suggested as much in his final press conference as Ireland captain, his lastact as a professional rugby player.
The flexibility required to acknowledge that the game was continuing to evolve, with the best teams seeking to find a way to overcome sides obsessed with the defensive aspect of the game, was something Ireland never fully embraced in the last 10 months.
The mantra ‘defence wins trophies’ — which started when Australia became the first side to introduce a rugby league defence coach and won the 1999 World Cup, conceding only a single try on their journey — has started to become outdated.
New Zealand’s attacking style was stifled by the Lions in 2017 and more recently by South Africa but they have set about countering that through the clever use of two playmakers and a very accurate kick pass game. Japan rarely kick the ball, relying on their crisp passing, clever running lines and footwork to unlock defences.
Australia tried a similar approach but their front five wasn’t good enough to deliver the type of quality ball required to stress defenses. That is where New Zealand differ from the rest. They have the capacity to mix it with the best up front without losing any of their creative genius.
A cursory glance at the match statistics from Saturday’s game highlights the difference in approach between Ireland and New Zealand. As always, our busiest ball carrier was CJ Stander with 16. New Zealand’s was Beauden Barrett with 21, most in a counter-attacking mode off poor Irish kicks.
New Zealand made 13 line breaks, we made two. The figures for offloads were even more telling at 16 to two, defenders beaten 29 to 11. Any notion that we kick the ball from hand appreciably more than them was proved inaccurate once again as they edged us on that front also by 33 to 32.
Perhaps the most surprising stat of all, given the margin of victory, is that New Zealand conceded twice as many penalties as Ireland did, 12 to our six.
For some time I’ve been convinced that in our quest to keep on the right side of officials, we have become too sanitised. New Zealand have no problem in conceding cynical penalties if it means not conceding tries.
They are also prepared to gamble at the breakdown in order to generate turnovers given how incredibly dangerous they are when transitioning from defence to attack. That proved rewarding for them once again last weekend with Ireland conceding 17 turnovers. New Zealand conceded only nine.
Joe Schmidt’s rigidly-structured approach has played a major role in Ireland’s successes since he took control of proceedings. Some players are thrilled to operate under such a regimented system as it takes away a lot of the decision-making process from them.
The downside is that some players lose the will (and the ability) to think and react on their feet, which kills spontaneity. With that goes the ability to adapt midstream when things are going against you.
Watching Beauden Barrett operate from full-back is very instructive. He is constantly scanning the field, looking for space and potential opportunities to exploit. If you kick badly to him, as Ireland did, you are asking for a problem. Given all that Schmidt has contributed to the game in this country, he deserved to finish on a higher note than this but, as I have seen and experienced on countless occasions over the years, sport just doesn’t operate like that.
He is such a perfectionist that he will agonise for some time as to how and why the wheels came off such a well-oiled machine this year. The reality is that teams worked out how to stop us playing. Stop Ireland on the gain line and their game-plan becomes very difficult to implement.
Too many of our leading players, while sporadically reminding us of their true quality, struggled to deliver their best form on a consistent basis. The onus now is on Andy Farrell to pick up the pieces. With so little time together before Ireland launch their Six Nations campaign next February, it will take time for him to make his mark. A starting point will be to introduce some badly needed fresh blood with a licence to loosen the shackles.
Form in the upcoming Champions Cup with the provinces must be rewarded and a new page turned. Farrell’s team must rise from the ashes. Ireland need to become more “comfortable in chaos” even if it leads to some dips along the way. Because if players are not solving, they are not evolving.