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'Maybe it consumed us': Joe Schmidt admits World Cup semi-final obsession contributed to Ireland's downfall in heartbreaking New Zealand defeat

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

A "heartbroken" Joe Schmidt said Ireland's World Cup hammering at the hands of New Zealand will scar him long after he takes leave of this job.

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The Kiwi head coach has overseen his last match in charge of this team, an error-strewn effort that saw them fail to land a blow on the All Blacks, who march on to meet England in Yokohama next week.

Schmidt was left to reflect on Ireland's decline in form since their win over the same opposition a year ago, and he suggested he and his team took their eye off the ball by becoming "consumed" by their desire to reach a semi-final for the first time.

Ironically, that led to them suffering a record World Cup defeat at the hands of the champions, beating their previous low of their last quarter-final to Argentina.

"I think there’s always a myriad of factors," he said of the 2019 decline.

"I do think when you hit a height there is always a little bit of a drop because it’s not perfect. We work with human beings and inevitably when you’ve reached a height there is, certainly not complacency, but there was an unfortunate, I suppose, aiming up for this tournament.

"One of the things we tried to do was experiment a little bit in the Six Nations, give some responsibility to a few younger players, try to build the group. We tried to use the Six Nations as a platform for that because we had won three of the last five of them that this is really what we wanted.

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"And so that’s why it’s so devastating, that what we really wanted, we didn’t produce the performance that we needed on the night and while there might be reasons for that with the short week that we had and the niggles that we had so that we weren’t quite as re-generated as we would have liked to have been.

"That error-count does make it incredibly hard. I don’t really have a reason for that, other than on the night there was always anxiety, there's always guys who might over-reach and as a result you don’t get the performance that you’re looking for."

Schmidt was asked to explain Ireland's missed tackles and their record of bowing out before the business end of World Cups.

"It’s a tough question," he said.

"This group of players have achieved and that’s the one thing that remains and it continues to remain elusive so we’re incredibly disappointed.

"Heartbroken wouldn't be too far away from how I feel and how the players feel right now.

"Because right after the November series when we played the All Blacks last year, we decided to make sure that this was our target.

"Maybe it consumed us a little bit and we got distracted from our game-to-game focus.

"But, the tackle misses when you're up against a team like the All Blacks - they have a straight and a power, they have elusive runners that if you are not in a position to make the tackle or you get slightly wrong-footed you do slip off tackles.

"And when you have got wave after wave of them coming and then you finally get relief and you look to put the ball down the field and you end up giving it straight back to them, you are straight back under the pump.

"I do think that mentally it takes a toll on players when they don't quite get to have that belief that we're going to get an opportunity with the ball and even an opportunity in the All Black '22, the only time we got into the All Black '22 in the first-half was right at the end of the half.

"I wasn't quite sure what the decision was for with Peter O'Mahony making contact with someone's backside, but that was disappointing because the penalty then gets turned around and again you lose that oxygen and belief to try and get a little bit of a footing back into the game."

Schmidt now leaves the role and plans to finish coaching.

Tonight's loss in Tokyo will sting for a long time, but he says he will ultimately look back on his time in charge with fondness.

"You tend to carry your scars a lot more than your successes and those scars are deep," he said.

"That's why I'm a little bit broken.

"I think when I get some distance to reflect on maybe 75 Test matches and we've won 74% of them, there's been some incredibly good days.

"I don't think they get washed away by two defeats in days where we are incredibly disappointed.

"I felt we had good reason four years ago when we lost our leadership before the quarter-final.

"Today, we just met a team who I think are number one in the world for a reason.

"If you're not on the money you're going to be incredibly disappointed and I am."

Schmidt was left to reflect on an error-strewn display that undermined all of the preparation that went into the tournament.

"I don’t really have an excuse for it or a reason for it. On the night we can’t afford to give the All Blacks access points like we did. They’re good enough to win games without us inviting them in and that was incredibly disappointing," he said.

"I think we were a little bit flat on the back of having a few niggles during the week. We weren’t quite sure what the team would be until Thursday.

"I felt that we needed to get off to a good start to build a bit of confidence, and when that didn’t happen I always felt that we would be a bit vulnerable. Once we were 22-0 down at half-time again, what was really disappointing about that was the third try.

"We had a really good space for Keith Earls on the trail line and a little bit of space on the overlap for Jacob Stockdale. We just didn’t quite put things together. We spilt that ball and on the back of it the All Blacks scored.    

"They didn’t really have to earn that. They finished it off really well but those are the frustrating things, because you’ve got to make the All Blacks work for everything if they’re going to get it.

"I felt that in the past we had forced them to do that, even when we lost to them and certainly when we beat them. So that I made it very tough, and then we were chasing the game in the second half, and if you’re chasing the game against the All Blacks and you’re not absolutely nailed on, you’re going to allow them opportunities. And that’s exactly what we did.

"Straight after half-time they took the ball back into their own 22 and we catch it with a foot in touch where we probably should have let it go and then we’ve got a line-out just outside our 22 to start the second-half to give ourselves a little bit of oxygen. But we sort of invited them straight back in again."

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