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Jonathan Bradley: A changing of the guard is inevitable as Ireland's World is shattered again

Ireland 14 New Zealand 46

Making strides: New Zealand ace Sevu Reece puts his side on the front foot
Making strides: New Zealand ace Sevu Reece puts his side on the front foot
Rory Best is applauded off by the All Blacks
Robbie Henshaw crosses for an Ireland try
Joe Schmidt
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

It began with the Fields of Athenry attempting to steal the show from the haka - looking back two hours later it was the only real contest of the day.

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Ireland left Tokyo Stadium battered, bruised and beaten but what will have hurt most of all will be the nagging feeling that they were never in the fight at all.

Having built towards Saturday and these World Cup quarter-finals from the moment their 2015 campaign ran aground at the same stage four years ago, the end felt all too familiar.

For the All Blacks in Japan read the Pumas in Cardiff, twice in succession Ireland's most successful coach has come to the biggest game any Irish coach has ever faced at this global showpiece and found his side blown away.

After a quarter of the game against Argentina in his first attempt, 17-0 in arrears. Against the All Blacks at the same stage, the same score.

Out of it before the game had ever found a groove. Last go around, the mitigating factors were myriad.

The side had lost their captain, their key man and three central figures in the build-up.

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There were no such excuses this time around. 

The week's preparation was cited by players as among the best they've been a part of, to be at this stage of the tournament and missing only one sure starter in Dan Leavy will have been considered a blessing.

Instead, the past 11 months have been chastening, all the more so now that, after this unprecedented period of success, there remains one glass ceiling against which this rugby team continues to bash its head.

For all the signposts, there remained belief that such an era of success could not end on a bum note. Even as the bandwagon lurched unsteadily along the road in 2019, there remained a belief, or perhaps just the hope, that this team had one big performance left in them, that England in Dublin, Wales in Cardiff, Eddie Jones's men again in Twickenham and then, Japan in Shizuoka, were multiple exceptions to a single rule.

To use the parlance of this competition, that Joe Schmidt had "something up his sleeve".

If he did, there was never a platform to show it. Against the All Blacks, there is little room for anything less than perfection.

Instead Ireland's error count was high, execution was poor and the back-to-back champions were in no mood to surrender their crown against a side so lacking in the clinical edge they know what is required to succeed at this level.

For a good side, Ireland gave a wholly convincing impression of a bad one.

Perhaps it'll be the inevitable autobiographies in the years to come before we hear much on the root cause.

For sure the first-timers and substitutes left to face the media in the aftermath while the senior men who spoke so well during the week remained in the changing room weren't those in the best position to hypothesise. 

In the absence of answers, the question that now looms large - what next for this group?

Back-to-back championships, a Grand Slam, a pair of wins over the All Blacks and notable successes over their southern hemisphere brethren.

For all that a considerable number of this group have achieved, the end of a World Cup cycle will always bring discussion over a changing of the guard.

The Six Nations has been and remains too vital a thread of the rugby fabric in this country to dismiss the period in between World Cups as nothing more than preparation, the player pool too small for any kind of seismic shift in personnel.

But a sizeable portion of this squad set off for Japan already in their 30s, while we know that Joe Schmidt and Rory Best already exited the stage once their media duties were complete in Tokyo, there is little doubt that there are plenty more who won't make it to France in four years time.

Johnny Sexton, as poor as he was on Saturday, remains this side's creative heartbeat.

He'll be 38 by the time the next tournament kicks off.

Joey Carbery, having moved to Munster in order to play out-half, remains waiting in the wings.

The decision to be made there - whether short-term success is sacrificed to build towards the next World Cup - is the most divisive, Peter O'Mahony, Rob Kearney and even Conor Murray have been sure starters under Schmidt but seem unlikely to still be here come France.

These are the decisions that face Andy Farrell when his thoughts inevitably turn to succeeding Schmidt and a Six Nations opener against Scotland next February. The balancing act is precarious.

The core of the side for the next World Cup would benefit from the increased exposure but Saturday was just the most recent example of the folly of putting too many eggs in a basket that comes around only once every 48 months.

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