Johnny Sexton may have only been half-joking when he suggested the knives would be out for himself and half-back partner Conor Murray once Ireland had departed this World Cup.
Instead, his words had the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy as New Zealand cruised into the semi-finals and Ireland delivered perhaps the poorest performance of Joe Schmidt’s reign as head coach.
Schmidt and Sexton have had plenty of miles on the clock together, with both Leinster and Ireland, the coach and his on-field ringmaster as often perfectly synchronised as the fly-half and scrum-half Murray, with whom he broke the appearance record for a half-back partnership on Saturday night, eclipsing the 55 times Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer started together in green.
“After the World Cup you guys will probably turn on us,” Sexton predicted during an eve-of-match press conference at Tokyo Stadium last Friday, “start calling for our heads and saying we’re too old. Saying the next batch have to come through. I can see it already. But, I’ve no doubt we’ve got a few years left.”
The below-par performance against the All Blacks, however, will leave Sexton’s words potentially coming back to bite him. Never mind the media, it is incoming head coach Andy Farrell who must decide the future for all of Ireland’s 30-somethings at the start of the next World Cup cycle.
The rugby league legend turned defence coach who now succeeds Schmidt has little more than three months until his tenure starts in earnest at the 2020 Six Nations to discern who among Ireland’s old brigade can last the course to the next World Cup and which of them must follow Rory Best into international retirement.
Best made the last appearance of a 15-year Test career on Saturday, retiring from all rugby at the age of 37 and few doubt Sexton’s capacity or desire to continue to such an age if he wishes but he was not alone among his team-mates in being made to look decidedly second class in comparison to their opposite numbers in black as Ireland were comprehensively outgunned by the defending champions.
Ireland had plumped for experience, New Zealand for fast-track Super Rugby form and on the hard surfaces here in Japan it was the latter that proved more effective, particularly when the Irish delivered such an error-strewn performance. It was a collective effort that may be difficult to shake off readily and that will be one of Farrell’s priorities on assuming command because Saturday’s quarter-final will leave its mark on a lot of players.
A new voice in the commanding role along with fresh coaching blood in former England colleague Mike Catt as attack coach, a function previously performed by Schmidt, and Greg Feek’s replacement as scrum coach John Fogarty, will freshen things up but though we can expect a new approach, the IRFU wants continuity, regardless of this latest setback. For Schmidt has overseen a revolution in the Irish game that has brought unprecedented success to it.
Their performance director David Nucifora certainly sees it that way, saying this back in May: “It’ll be different, that’s what it’ll be, and all the things that (Schmidt’s) done and left behind are not going to be lost, and that’s what we’ve really focused on.
We’ve focused on how do we build on this and Andy Farrell’s appointment, we’re really confident that Andy is going to be able to build on what Joe has done.
“Now, Andy’s a different man to Joe and he’s going to do it a different way, but one of the reasons that we recruited Andy was because one, we believe in him as a coach and as a person, but Andy was super keen to come here all those years ago (in 2016) because he wanted to work with Joe and he feels that he’s a far better coach for the time he’s had with Joe.
"He’s going to be put to the test when he takes over post the World Cup.”
It will be a tough challenge, no doubt, but Schmidt’s team that peaked in 2018 has come to the end of its natural life and Farrell has an opportunity to rebuild around a significant rump of young talent led by a captain-in-waiting, James Ryan and the likes of Jordan Larmour, Jacob Stockdale and Joey Carbery.
The only question remaining is how quickly he will make the transition.