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Neil Francis: Ireland's 1995 amateurs did a better job of taking on New Zealand's greats than our current crop

 

Game over: Jacob Stockdale leads a disconsolate Ireland off after losing to the All Blacks
Game over: Jacob Stockdale leads a disconsolate Ireland off after losing to the All Blacks
Joe Schmidt
Simon Geoghegan is tackled by Mike Brewer in the 1995 World Cup clash

By Neil Francis

Last Saturday, shortly after lunchtime, it turned into a WhatsApp day - a 'WTF' WhatsApp day. Hundreds of WhatsApps pinging throughout the day to the point that I put the phone onto silent mode - to mirror Ireland's mood in the dressing-room.

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After the big day and I now know how those brides feel when the groom doesn't show. For anyone who was on that park last Saturday, that is how they will feel forever. Ireland once again didn't show.

Later in the day a WhatsApp arrived from Simon Geoghegan - there is no one in Christendom who speaks the plain truth with more conviction than the Londoner: "We did better than that".

Twenty-four years of evolution and progress. A quarter of a century of exact science and pre-determination bested by a team in 1995 that went back to their day jobs when they went home from Johannesburg.

The only other time Ireland played New Zealand at the World Cup was in 1995. We scored three tries that night and limited the All Blacks to five and we were close until the last quarter - 43-19 was the final score. We lost, but at least we turned up and got stuck in.

That Ireland team were half-decent but, if you transported us forward to 2019, very few would get into the current side as professionals.

The same could not be said for the New Zealand team. That entire All Black three-quarter line of Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue and George Bridge would not be in the same class as Jonah Lomu, Walter Little, France Bunce and Jeff Wilson. Nor would the current front-row have got in ahead of Olo Brown, Sean Fitzpatrick and Craig Dowd.

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Then you have to make decisions on Ian Jones, Josh Kronfeld, Zinzan Brooke and Mike Brewer. That lot did not win a World Cup but were a better side than the 2019 version who have won nothing yet.

Making comparisons between sides in differing times can be a faintly ridiculous exercise yet, lest we miss the point, despite some phenomenal victories and championship wins, Ireland have regressed at World Cups.

The losses to Wales in 2011, Argentina in 2015 and now New Zealand in 2019 show conclusively that Ireland are still hopeless at playing cup football. The Six Nations we know is a league competition.

What is most galling this time around is that Ireland were able to put close to their best XV on the park and yet you get a sense that if you picked the best team out of what is left behind operating in the Guinness PRO14, they would've given it a better shot - you know they at least would have landed a couple of punches, defended with far more intelligence and wouldn't have committed the unpardonable sins of the same level of turnovers or handling errors as this highly experienced Ireland team.

Nor would they nonchalantly have just kicked the ball away to the All Blacks. The sharpest Irish player at the World Cup was Jordi Murphy, who was training and operating outside of the match-day squad.

The most overused saying in sport is that "form is temporary, class is permanent". It is so over-used that whoever dreamed it up is suffering some purgatorial delayed deliverance.

When it comes to World Cups, form is everything. The All Blacks' form has been permanent for the last eight years. One hundred years of class but form when it matters.

How does Steve Hansen manage to do it? He is your stereotypical taciturn Kiwi - the sort of guy who would ask for separate bills at the Last Supper. How does he do it? Is it like turning on a hot or cold water tap or a light switch?

There is no question that Joe Schmidt wanted, more than anything, his team to arrive out on the paddock last Saturday and give it their best shot - a collective performance where everyone out-performed, the game-plan went according to plan and they absorbed and exerted pressure in equal measure, and they got the bounce of the ball and all the referee's calls.

It would not have been enough because New Zealand had gears and would have gone through them to meet the challenge. They did not make a single mistake - well they did, they made the mistake of taking Ireland seriously. That only lasted for a few minutes though.

From the off, it was all business from the All Blacks. Funny how all the form teams won at the weekend. Even Wales seem to know how to end up on the right side of the scoreboard.

Ireland's form? Well, they would not have beaten any of the other six teams left in the quarter-finals and, given how badly they performed, you would seriously question whether they would have the form to trouble Argentina, Fiji or, God forbid, Scotland again.

How is it that Ireland reserved their worst display for the match that mattered the most? Lose by all means, but at least perform.

The coach's No.1 job is to try and put his team out on the park in a state where they are fresh mentally and physically. That is hard to do in a constrained environment like a World Cup.

They looked spent from the off. What is galling is that sides that Ireland beat regularly seem to have the capacity to get stronger the further into the competition they get. Ireland seem to taper and fall off. Is this a purely Irish thing?

Conventional wisdom might not be too far off the mark. Did Joe flog them too much and was he just like he was in World Cup 2015 - too intense and too much of a control freak for his players, who are a resilient lot?

How serious would we be about getting our cycles right? Our coaches too.

Eddie O'Sullivan won his Triple Crowns before the 2007 World Cup but had overstayed and probably was stale to his team by his second World Cup.

Declan Kidney won his Grand Slam in 2009 but found it difficult to go again in World Cup 2011. Joe won championships early in his tenure but the cycle went against him in 2015, and the 2018 Grand Slam was a culmination.

We all used to slag New Zealand about peaking between World Cups, but they copped it and they have made the necessary adjustments, even though they have hung on to Hansen.

Ireland have Andy Farrell in situ already for a season-and-a-half and, by the time it comes to France in four years, he may just have gone past his sell-by date, and the lack of rugby acumen by the mandarins may just mean that Farrell will still be in control despite 28 years of evidence, and whatever team he takes over to France may just have had their fill of his ideas.

Maybe we should just content ourselves with winning the Six Nations and knocking off the big boys when they come to visit. World Cups seem to be a step too far. Twenty-four years though is a long time to be standing still.

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