It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was, ultimately, the most frustrating of times.
The sense of unfulfilment from Ireland’s World Cup has a four-year expiration date (at least) and the return to domestic competition will be a considerable come-down.
Reaching a first World Cup semi-final would have made Ireland’s tournament a notable success, even if they had then failed to reach the final. They could well have gone on to make the decider — on the assumption that France might well have shot their bolt against England in their quarter-final — a realisation that compounds the overall sense of frustration and failure
It has been a compelling five-and-half weeks following Ireland’s 2011 World Cup challenge but there was another fortnight in it — and everyone knows it.
TOP IRISH PERFORMERS
1 Rory Best: Superbly consistent, Best saved the best rugby of his career for the biggest stage and his performance against Wales was rendered all the more remarkable by the serious shoulder injury sustained the week before. The Ulster hooker has made himself a leading contender for Ireland captain looking ahead to New Zealand 2015.
2 Sean O’Brien (right): The European player of the year was hyped going in and lived up to the billing despite being asked to fill in at No 7 for the injured David Wallace. Wales had him worked out last weekend, but the Tullow man can reflect on an excellent tournament.
3 Cian Healy: Among the best loose-heads in the game now, Adam Jones gave him a tough evening in the quarter-final but Healy’s scrummagaing has come on hugely to augment a powerful carrying game.
BIGGEST PLAYER PLUS
Conor Murray: His late surge into the World Cup squad was backed up by assured performances in high pressure situations. Mike Philips showed him how in Wellington but Murray has the game and the attitude to become Ireland’s first Lions scrum half in 32 years on the 2013 tour to Australia.
Andrew Trimble: Ireland’s best player in a difficult warm-up found himself out of the side when it mattered, with Keith Earls seizing his chance to emerge as one of the top finishers at the tournament.
The win over Australia deserves to go down as Ireland’s best Test performance. The Wallabies went in as Tri-Nations champions and desperate to win to ensure a smoother passage to the final against an Irish side that had no real form going in. Ireland produced an all-round per
formance that showed what they are capable off, but could not replicate it against Wales.
BEST AREA OF IRISH PLAY
The scrum: Ireland’s scrum power was essential to the win over Australia and destroyed Italian ambition at source, having been questioned by Italy coach Nick Mallett in the build-up. Set up by Greg Feek and led by Healy, Best and Mike Ross, Ireland’s scrum gives them a foundation to build upon.
WEAKEST ASPECT OF IRISH PLAY
Depth of attack: Too shallow, too lateral and too predictable when depth was needed against Wales.
That a group of players, led by Brian O’Driscoll, who have done so much to drag Irish rugby out of the doldrums of the 1990s have never added a meaningful World Cup to their list of achievements.
BEST ASPECT OF NEW ZEALAND 2011
The narrowing gap between the establishment and emerging nations. Romania, Georgia, Japan, Canada, United States, Russia, Samoa and Tonga all justified their presence
Pricing: New Zealand has embraced this tournament wholeheartedly (at least until the All Blacks are knocked out) and there has been a tremendous, country-wide buzz surrounding it. However, a cynical policy of price-hiking has pervaded every off-pitch area from accommodation to food, drink, wifi, car hire and clothing. Match programmes were being sold for $20 last weekend.
Queenstown: England may have added a note of notoriety to this charming resort but there was plenty of positive reports which should increase tourism. Stunning to look at, fascinating to experience.
New Plymouth: Still top of the dung-heap. New Plymouth was a lot better than last year but remains a desert of diversion in midweek.
European Cups and League titles count for little when it comes to World Cup knock-out matches. A more varied game-plan counts for far more.
The mental side to success: Ireland had a psychological edge against Australia they could not find against a team of Welsh players they beat on a regular basis. France were able to use a chaotic pool performance as motivation to beat England and the Wallabies are driven by the humiliation they experienced after defeat to Ireland with a burning desire to exact revenge against their Kiwi mockers by beating the All Blacks next weekend. Rugby has become a hugely scientific exercise but the intangible of mental motivation can still prove the difference. Tapping into it is the key.