Regret will linger like jet lag

THERE are many ways to lose a game of rugby, not least through tactical misjudgements, poor decision-making and sloppy execution.

Regret will linger like jet lag

And sometimes, the opposing team can just outplay you, denying you the opportunity of implementing your Plan A and your Plan B.

There were certainly elements of the former at Wellington’s “Cake Tin” stadium on Saturday yet there was also plenty of the latter as Ireland let slip their best chance of making World Cup history for their country in a 22-10 quarter-final defeat to Wales.

A young Welsh side, forged not by Warren Gatland’s design but through some sort of delightful chance, snuffed out Ireland at source whenever possible and stifled their attack when it was not. And, burgeoning in confidence and bursting with passion, it exposed some tired legs and minds in the green defensive line to score a three tries to one victory.

Wales, with a starting XV whose average age was 25.5, now go into their first World Cup semi-final since the inaugural tournament in 1987, when their captain, the outstanding openside flanker Sam Warburton, had not even been born.

Their win sets up a mouth-watering tie with France at Auckland’s Eden Park that will make for painful viewing should the homecoming Irish squad be still suffering from jet lag next Saturday morning. Because this was an opportunity that might not come Ireland’s way again for a very long time, having altered the course of the entire tournament with that famous 15-6 win over pool rivals Australia three games previously.

That win over the Tri Nations champions at Eden Park on September 17 not only banished memories of a pretty dismal August but had generated an incredible feelgood factor about Irish rugby, amplified by the thousands of fans, many of them recession-led expatriates in the southern hemisphere, who faithfully followed their heroes around these islands and gave Declan Kidney’s side such tremendous backing throughout.

“That just makes it harder,” a deeply disappointed Kidney said late on Saturday night.

“You get a sense of how much people are feeding off it and you really want to go well for everybody. Not just yourselves but for everybody at home and all the support we had out here which was magnificent. That just makes the hurt all the greater when you’re trying to give somebody something.”

That Ireland fell flat on the biggest stage — “we played like we did in August,” said one backroom staff member privately — will be even more hurtful because the intensity that had seen them through the pool stage unbeaten seemed to be absent against the Welsh, with captain Brian O’Driscoll, playing in what will surely be his final World Cup encounter, admitting his side had “failed to do ourselves justice.

“You have to earn everything you get in Test rugby and today we were off the pace — and we go home as a result of that,” O’Driscoll said. “That’s the bitter disappointment of it, but you have to suck it up when you haven’t performed on the big stage.

“It’s very disappointing collectively, while, personally, I won’t get this opportunity again. That really sucks, but life goes on. We had high hopes going into the game and we were in good form but we were outplayed by Wales. At the business end of World Cups you cannot afford to be below par. We were and we paid the price. We gave ourselves an opportunity by winning our group and it is a tough one to negotiate.”

Kidney was less fatalistic about his old guard, which also includes Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Ronan O’Gara and Gordon D’Arcy, saying: “I’m especially disappointed for them because they’ll see it as their last chance. A lot of them will wear the green again but in terms of World Cups, they were, more than anybody, looking to try and finish off this World Cup on a high in terms of their career.”

The Ireland coach believed Wales had benefited hugely from scoring first in the game, when Gatland’s side capitalised on their stripping the ball off Keith Earls deep inside their own half and went up the other end to score a try inside the first three minutes through Shane Williams.

And he also talked about the Welsh enjoying the benefits of keeping the scoreboard ticking over.

“They got the try; it gave them impetus. You’re in your fifth game of the competition. They defended well. We managed to get back into it at 10-all, but then once they got the bit of territory and then the try, that gives you impetus as well.

“It’s an endurance event too, and if you get those little bits of momentum and impetus during games, it can be hard to peg it back.”

And yet Ireland could have had that momentum on the scoreboard but chose to kick for the corners three times inside the first quarter-of-an-hour when there were — for Ronan O’Gara — gettable penalty goals on offer.

It is all conjecture now but had the veteran slotted those over, Ireland would have been 9-7 up after 15 minutes, not 7-0 down.

“We put ourselves in good attacking mode [after the Wales try],” Kidney said, “had a fair bit of territory inside their red zone, got a few penalties out wide. On a windy day, you’re feeling good so you go for the corners but we just came up short.

“When they got a try-scoring opportunity they took it. I don’t think they had too many more actual try-scoring opportunities, but I thought we created a few chances but didn’t manage to finish anything bar one and you need to be doing that at this level.”

Kidney will want to move quickly on from this, and said this was the start of a long season that will not end until Ireland complete their summer tour, back here in New Zealand, towards the end of next June.

It will also be the start of the next World Cup cycle, when the squad building will continue with the 2015 tournament in England in mind.

The old faces will fade with dignity from the scene, new leaders will emerge — quite possibly with Ireland’s player of the tournament Rory Best as O’Driscoll’s eventual replacement as team captain — and fresh blood will be introduced along with a new backs coach to succeed the outgoing Australian Alan Gaffney.

A new dawn beckons but this defeat will not be easily shaken from the memory banks.

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