Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Peter Bills: Same old story for Ireland

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 08: Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland off loads as he tackled by Toby Faletau of Wales during the IRB RWC Quarter Final match between Ireland and Wales at Wellington Regional Stadium on October 08, 2011 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Ireland failed once again in the quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup.

All the hopes invested in this generation of players, the optimism buoyed by that upset win over Australia and comprehensive dismantling of Italy, came to nothing. Defeat in the last eight, that old nemesis of Irish rugby, once more came back to haunt them.

This time it was Wales who destroyed their dreams. But it is the common thread that ought to alarm Irish rugby men.

After all, this sense of ultimate frustration and disappointment does not just crop up every four years. It has been gnawing away at the soul of Irish rugby for too many non-World Cup years.

The brutal truth is that Ireland seem incapable of stringing together a run of top quality performances and fine results.

On their day, they can beat almost anyone, as we saw against Australia in their pool match. They backed that up with a flawless demolition of Italy and spirits rose commensurate with those performances.

But here, just when another top-notch display was required, Ireland flopped. Damaged psychologically by Wales’s 2nd minute converted try, they revealed a mental fragility of which the Welsh took full advantage. Deep down, in the fine details of their play on the day, Ireland lacked the swagger and confidence that had done for the Aussies.

They dominated the first half yet their mistakes handed Wales 10 precious points when they were under the cosh for most of the time. The fact that Ireland could manage only a single Ronan O’Gara penalty in the first 40 minutes hurt them, Brian O’Driscoll conceded afterwards.

Yet there were two ways of looking at the game at half time. Ireland could have seen a glass half full or half empty. Half full because they had forced Wales to make a massive 85 tackles in the first half alone.

Surely, they were entitled to believe, some gaps would open up in the second half given that kind of physical pressure.

But that scenario never came to fruition because Ireland panicked.

Without the composure and true belief that had hallmarked the performances against Australia and Italy, they became ever more desperate. White line fever became a common complaint that infected the whole side. As the tension and panic spread, the grip on reality loosened. Calm heads seemed to have gone AWOL.

Having got back to 10-10, the one thing Ireland needed was to be patient and cut out any mistakes.

Instead, they fell down on both requirements. A gaping defensive hole was left on the blindside for Mike Phillips to exploit for his crucial try and four missed tackles on Jonathan Davies gifted the Welsh centre the decisive try.

So why can’t Ireland put together four or five consecutive champion performances, even when they seem on their game? It is a question that will be pondered by coach Declan Kidney on the journey home, all the way from Auckland to Dublin, which started this morning.

You couldn’t say Wales were vastly superior as players in any one department. But collectively, they shut out Ireland in a defensive sense so that Kidney’s men became shadows of the authoritative players they had been earlier in the tournament. Yet Ireland’s defence had been as secure against Australia. They could play in a similar pattern.

Was it a lack of concentration by Ireland? Did their belief desert them at the crucial moment? Was it fatigue? Whatever the cause, they have been here before.

The wider context is the one where the inquests should begin. It isn’t as if Ireland just come up short at World Cups.

They have been doing so for too long in the Six Nations as well, a disturbing trait that has denied them several more Slams and Championship titles in recent years.

Is it that some of their players start to listen to and believe the glowing publicity that a good win brings?

Is it that, whilst basking in the adulation, they allow their commitment levels to slip? Is it that too few of this Irish side can make key decisions under pressure, even changing the strategy if necessary?

Or is it that they just couldn’t handle the pressures of the occasion, or the expectations they had established in their own minds?

Whatever the reason, it was as Brian O’Driscoll said, a bitterly disappointing outcome to a World Cup that had promised so much for Ireland. O’Driscoll’s last chance of glory on this world stage has now gone.

And unless answers can be found to some of these questions, Ireland’s hopes at future World Cups seem doomed to failure.

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