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Rugby World Cup: Aerial bombardment just won't cut it for Ireland when they face the best

Tony Ward

We can never say never but I doubt we will ever have a better opportunity to go where no Irish side has gone before as presented at this World Cup.

We rode our luck early and save for the loss of Tommy O'Donnell (Rhys Ruddock had been ruled out long before) were operating from fairly close to a full hand.

Sadly that all unfolded against the French and no we are not looking for any soft excuse. We are a small rugby-playing nation still evolving ... fact, not opinion. The loss of players of the experience, calibre and influence of Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien cannot easily be dismissed.

Think New Zealand, a country in which rugby is the national obsession (Gaelic games, soccer and rugby all rolled into one) minus Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Dan Carter and those of half decent persuasion might just get the drift. Beating Argentina was always set to be an uphill battle but in turning up in our Italian mode as opposed to French we turned that incline into a mountain.

Ahead of Sunday's quarterfinal I believed it to be 50/50. Had we had O'Connell. O'Mahony and O'Brien in situ I believe we could have strangled them. That of course we will never now know but what we do know for sure is that the better team playing the more appropriate brand of world cup rugby won in the end every bit as convincingly as the final scoreline suggests.

For Joe Schmidt, for Irish rugby and for the extraordinary support the game has enjoyed over the past month it represented a very hollow ending indeed.

We have seen what Schmidt can do with a talented back line given what he inherited when he first took over at Leinster. Equally when it comes to cutting his cloth and still striking that winning formula the last two seasons with Ireland speak for themselves.

We all basked in that success and the feelgood factor it generated but was it ever enough to compete with and overcome the best of the Southern Hemisphere at a World Cup?

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No, nay, never. And therein lies the real message from Sunday's reality check. We are as good if not better than any of the other Five Nations north of the zero line when it comes to playing percentage rugby and we can come out on top in the occasional autumn international. But enough to win a Rugby World Cup? Never, never and never again.

While obviously keeping his real feelings under wraps Schmidt knew we hadn't a snowball's hope in hell - even with the three Os - of beating New Zealand.

The objective was to play in seven world cup matches for the first time ever and for sure that would have been some achievement. The French shoot out took a heavy toll and once our limited pick and drive, kick and chase strategy was missing key personnel we were set to be stretched, literally and metaphorically, by far more ambitious opposition.

No doubt knives will be out with Schmidt and his management team a target but given our limited resources what he, Les Kiss and Simon Easterby have achieved has been remarkable by northern hemisphere standards. Unfortunately when it comes to winning a Rugby World Cup it is southern not northern standards that apply.

Early on Saturday I watched a couple of ITM games televised from New Zealand. It is their main domestic competition, a type of Currie Cup or Pro 12 minus the international dimension of Super Rugby. The standard embraces the best of the rest (those not deemed good enough to make the All Black World Cup squad) and was extraordinary.

The rugby played in New Zealand from grassroots to top domestic is from a different planet entirely. It is based primarily on offloading and support in numbers both flat and from depth at pace.

It is error riddled in so far as turnovers are many but in terms of excitement, putting bums on seats but more than anything taking skill requirements to All Black level it is part of the natural evolutionary process that makes New Zealand rugby the indisputable number one.

So if there is one message and one wish from this World Cup going forward it is that we try and follow the Daniel Hourcade route.

As with Argentina there will be no gain without pain and if that means for Ireland taking risks at the expense of a Six Nations three-in-a-row then so be it.

And here I would urge the IRFU national team review group to provide Schmidt with the assurance that the security of his tenure is not result-related as in a Six Nations three-in-a-row.

With due respect to the still jewel in the northern hemisphere crown, success at Test level is measured by the four-yearly World Cup and not Six Nations or Championship titles won in the interim. Argentina have won two games in the now Four Nation Rugby Championship but the improvement in their rugby is phenomenal. The opening quarter (when Sunday's outcome was determined) replicated the All Blacks against the French the previous night. The difference at this point in time is that the Kiwis maintain the level of intensity for longer but tell me that the Pumas are not already working their way up that ladder.

Are the players in Irish rugby to develop a more risk-laden and more expansive attacking strategy? In all honesty I expect not but if the will is there then so is the way. We have the right coaching team in place to take Irish rugby forward. Of that I have no doubt but what they must have is that guarantee from the IRFU that with gain comes some level of pain and that in the best interest of Irish rugby it will be shared.

Like everybody out there I love winning but ask me, despite the excitement of what was dubbed Super Saturday on the final day of this year's Six Nations, did I enjoy the route to success and my answer is emphatically no.

I hate this aerial bombardment and emphasis upon kick/chase and closing down space. I was brought up to believe soccer was played to feet and rugby (for backs anyway) at attacking space.

The message from last weekend is clear; if New Zealand and Argentina can go back to the future then so must we. There is no other option.

Belfast Telegraph


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