Statistically speaking, all World Cups are an exercise in misery. Twenty teams arrived in France with a dream, but only one of them will lift the trophy. There is no major sporting competition that comes with favourable odds but every team carries on hoping that this will be their time.
The basic maths, of course, will be no consolation to Ireland’s fans after the devastating quarter-final defeat by the All Blacks in Paris on Saturday night. Expectation had never been higher – on the streets of the French capital, rammed with tens of thousands of exuberant green-clad supporters, or in the cities, towns and villages back home. Consequently, the sense of crushing disappointment has never been more profound.
Supporters, players and coaches alike are coming to terms with yet another last-eight exit on the biggest stage, and it is only natural for them to wonder what might have been. Could Ireland have done more? No. Could they have done anything differently? Certainly. “Ifs, buts and maybes,” as the rueful head coach, Andy Farrell, said in the aftermath.
There were undoubtedly a few moments of costly inaccuracy. Conor Murray’s loss of composure in coughing up a needless penalty in the final quarter, nailed by Jordie Barrett. Johnny Sexton’s errant effort with a penalty of his own before that, as the tension built, and the importance of every score grew exponentially as the clock ticked down.
The concession of a disappointingly soft third try, scored by the New Zealand wing Will Jordan, after a straightforward lineout move via Richie Mo’unga and Aaron Smith, when a yawning gap appeared in Ireland’s defensive line.
After what turned into a lopsided defeat by Farrell’s men in the pool stage, Scotland were criticised for opting not to take points on offer early in the game, passing up chances to go for goal in favour of kicking for the corner.
As much as their positive intent was admirable, it is fair to level the same criticism at Ireland’s approach at the Stade de France. Sexton’s punts for the corner brought regular roars from the Irish contingent, but those opportunities did not bring a satisfactory return of points on the board.
But perhaps all of that ignores the wider reality. It was ultimately a mammoth defensive effort by the All Blacks that secured their passage to the semi-finals. Allied of course to some typically lethal attacking play with ball in hand. To choose a few significant moments that damaged Ireland’s prospects is to disregard that unifying theme.Jordie Barrett of New Zealand (top) tackles Ireland’s Jimmy O’Brien. Photograph: David Winter/Shutterstock
Scott McLeod, New Zealand’s defence coach, explained a touch of technical detail regarding how their approach changed after last summer’s series defeat by the Irish. “After the series loss at home last year, which really hurt, we had to look at some fundamentals in the defensive game,” he says. “In Super Rugby in New Zealand, they tend to defend the man. We had to develop our ability to defend the ball.”
It sounds simple, but even simpler still is the tackle count of 276 compiled by New Zealand on Saturday night. “And 100 of those were in the last quarter,” McLeod says, after Ireland laid siege to their opponent’s line in the closing minutes.
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A magnificent piece of defensive work by Jordie Barrett, somehow managing to hold up Ronan Kelleher when a winning try looked a certainty, summed up New Zealand’s spirit. An astonishing first-half tackle by Sam Cane on Caelan Doris, too, was a tone-setting, momentum-shifting moment.
Ian Foster, New Zealand’s head coach, had described Ireland’s attack in the thrilling final act as “cut and paste” – seemingly a barb directed at Farrell and his team – but McLeod explained that Foster was referring to the relentlessness of those green attacking waves.
“It wasn’t a derogatory comment at all,” McLeod says. “Cut and paste meant they just kept running the same shape, the attack shape. And they just kept trying to find a weakness in us, over and over and over again.”
But they could not. As one shattered fan said, it had been more than hope or expectation; it had been belief. Ireland failed to get over the line – or rather they did, and were agonisingly held up.