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Rugby World Cup: How Ireland's world fell to pieces

Jonathan Bradley

Published 20/10/2015

Hard luck story: Ireland players reflect on the devastating defeat to Argentina
Hard luck story: Ireland players reflect on the devastating defeat to Argentina
Johnny Sexton was a huge loss to the Ireland squad

The quarter-finals of the World Cup have all too often proven to be a bridge too far for Ireland but Sunday's defeat will be especially disappointing for a team who, off the back of two Six Nations championships, had real ambitions to make history.

Here we take a look at five ways in which it all went wrong:

Lack of a plan b

Every pre-tournament preview of Ireland's prospects seemed to include the familiar caveat "unless Johnny Sexton gets injured".

That was exactly the fate awaiting Joe Schmidt's star out-half as he strained an abductor in the win over France and subsequently missed the last eight loss to Argentina.

The four teams that remain have all utilised twin playmakers, either at 10 and centre or in the half back pairing, but when Ireland lost Sexton the team was robbed of the sole orchestrator of their gameplan.

If a similar misfortune was to befall the semi-finalists and their number 10s then the likes of Australia's Matt Giteau, South Africa's Fourie Du Preez, Argentina's Juan Martin Hernandez or New Zealand's Conrad Smith would be expected to provide a cool head in the back-line but Ireland lacked someone to pull the strings in Sexton's absence.

Without the depth to compensate for the loss of their Test Lion at stand-off, there was always likely to be trouble.


Ireland's lack of discipline was lamented by the likes of Iain Henderson in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's defeat and the Ulster forward rightly pointed out that it was simply unacceptable for a Test team.

A key aspect of Ireland's success under Joe Schmidt has been their ability to keep the penalty count in single figures but, whether affected by the magnitude of the occasion or not, it has not been the case at this World Cup.

Ireland have heard the referee's whistle with alarming frequency since August and Schmidt will be dismayed by his side's struggles to stay on the right side of Jerome Garces at the Millennium Stadium.

Kickable penalties, as well as those that relieved pressure or surrendered territory, were a killer for Ireland against the Pumas while it should not be forgotten that the absence of Sean O'Brien was wholly avoidable.

The Leinster flanker, who would have gone a long way to resolving Ireland's obvious issues at the breakdown, was banned for striking Pascal Pape in the first minute of the win over France. Easy to say from the stands of course but if O'Brien could have kept his cool in the face of provocation he would have significantly boosted Ireland's cause.

North and south

At present, there is a gulf in class between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. While Wales and Scotland endured late heartache against South Africa and Australia respectively, there is no way to avoid the fact that the four teams who annually compete in the Rugby Championship are the quartet left standing at the semi-final stage.

Given the huge tradition attached to the Six Nations it can be easy to see the European clashes as the be-all and end-all of the Test season but what we've witnessed over the last five weeks has again exposed a gulf in class.

After four seasons in what was known as the Tri Nations, Argentina have successfully leapfrogged the traditional elite after progressing in leaps and bounds. The benefit of playing the best at their best six times a year cannot be overlooked.

For Ireland, there is little benefit of summer tours when a half-full squad routinely ship heavy defeats or wins in November internationals when the powerhouses from south of the equator are at the end of a hard season and a week from their holidays.

The World Cup is the only time Ireland face the Southern Hemisphere sides on a level playing field and two wins against those four in the history of the competition - one of those coming against the Pumas all the way back in 2003 - tells its own story.


Players seem loathe to use it as an excuse but the team that took the field in Cardiff was one decimated by injuries.

Sexton was clearly a massive loss but Ireland will wonder what might have been had Jared Payne, Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony been available.

The loss of a third of their starting side, and some 250 caps of Ireland experience, was exacerbated by the departure of another key figure in Tommy Bowe after just 12 minutes and would be hard for any side to manage.

Schmidt's men were deprived of leaders in key facets of the game and, while both Rory Best and stand-in captain Jamie Heaslip looked to lead by example, unfortunately those around them did not follow.


While Ireland welcomed the opportunity to build into the tournament with fixtures that increased in intensity week on week, they certainly seemed to come out flat-on Sunday.

Argentina, meanwhile, having played New Zealand first and then enjoyed three relatively routine wins in succession, seemed to hit the perfect emotional pitch as they stormed out of the blocks.

Did the physical and mental strain of what was billed as a do-or-die clash with France last week leave the players drained?

Regardless there is no merit to the suggestion that, already qualified for the quarters, Schmidt should have rested key men against Les Bleus.

No matter how bad things got at the weekend, you can guarantee they would have been worse against the All Blacks.

Belfast Telegraph

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