Ireland fecked out of World Cup early again after failing to back up big talk
"At the end of the World Cup you guys will probably turn on us, and start calling for our heads, saying we’re too old and that the next batch have to come through. I can see it already."
So said Johnny Sexton at the Captain's Run in Chofu, 24 hours before his Ireland side got unceremoniously slung out of another World Cup. Closing time. Fun's over.
But it was never much fun and it hasn't been since the turn of the year.
Team of Us. Ireland Believes. Everyone in.
Like Euro 2012 (for football) and the 2015 World Cup, these advertising slogans often jar, during the commercial breaks, when your country is getting an almighty thumping.
Many of these campaigns are put together months before the big tournaments get underway. It can feel like light years, at times.
For the second Rugby World Cup going, Ireland have been packed off home and no-one will miss us. Japan will not be as colourful, or shift as many units of alcohol, without the fans but don't worry about them. Their national team is flying and they have brought the nation along with them with a brand of running, attacking rugby.
Ireland fans stuck with their side out of hope and blind loyalty. The signs were looking bad, all year, but we told ourselves that our big players had one BIG game in them.
In the end, that big game arrived against a Scotland side that were turfed out at the pool stages. Nobody will miss them either.
The 46-14 defeat to the All Blacks is up there with our abject failure in the final Six Nations game as our worst performance of the year. For a team that reached such heights in 2018, they have plummeted to earth at an alarming rate.
Earlier in the week, Johnny Sexton spoke of the "strange" negativity around the Irish team. Perhaps if he had looked at his team's performances this year he would have realised there was nothing strange about it.
Up until today's game in Chofu, Ireland had lost three of the big four games they had played in - England (L), and Wales (L) in the Six Nations then Scotland (W) and Japan (L) in the World Cup. There was also a record 57-15 beating by England at Twickenham, in a warm-up, but we were assured that was due to England having front-loaded their preparations.
There was nothing strange about Irish pundits and fans fearing the worst. All the signs were there. And, in truth, whether it was New Zealand or South Africa, Ireland at their current, low ebb would have struggled badly against either.
Four years ago, in Cardiff, Ireland were put to the sword by a rampant Argentina side. 43-20 as they were blown off the pitch by a vibrant team showing no fear of playing in the knock-out stages.
At House of Rugby's live show in Limerick, on Thursday, Ireland back-row show O'Brien insisted that his side's four injuries to key players and his suspension from the game had been the difference. "If even one of us played," he said, "I'm convinced we would have won."
Joe Schmidt went back to the drawing board in the winter of 2015 and came back with his solution:
- We're on the right track with my tactics
- We need a deeper playing pool
The IRFU backed him to the hilt and Operation 2019 was underway. Since 2015, Schmidt capped 41 new players as he sought to add some depth to his squad and back up the likes of Johnny Sexton, Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray.
The likes of CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong, Jacob Stockdale, Joey Carbery, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier and James Ryan emerged, and prospered, but rugby looked to be moving on. Ireland's tactics of relying on box-kicks, set-pieces, the 'Sexton Loop' and one-out runners were not for changing.
Ireland's tactics looked dated in 2015 but they only made a few tweaks while the likes of England (Ford, Farrell and Slade) and New Zealand (Barrett and Mo'unga) were going for two distributors in their backlines. Changing the point of attack and going with two and three lads making the big plays.
Schmidt wanted his forwards to improve their passing, too, and that has been an area of improvement but those forwards are now losing collisions with worrying regularity.
England, Wales, Japan and New Zealand all had us figured out. Front up in defence, don't commit huge numbers to the breakdown, keep your discipline and wait for Ireland to wear themselves out, or make a mistake. Even Russia caused us trouble for a 40-minute period with those tactics.
Schmidt also went with his old reliables and would die on that hill. Kearney, Best, O'Mahony, Healy, Murray, Sexton, Stander, Earls and Henshaw all started and none emerged with much credit. Players that had shown form - Conway, Farrell, Larmour, Kilcoyne, Ruddock and Beirne - were either on the bench or in the stands.
Sexton talked the talk at two press briefings this week but he most certainly did not back up his big words against the All Blacks. In fairness, few in the green jersey did.
Still, you get the impression that an entirely different starting XV would still have been tonked by New Zealand.
Confidence has been low in this Ireland side since England came to Dublin and trampled all over them. They may have won games since but they have never truly recovered.
Joe Schmidt is Ireland's greatest ever coach but he appears to have brought them as far as he can.
The shame is that the journey appeared to end when we defeated New Zealand in November 2018... 11 months ago.
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