IRELAND ON THE RWC STAGE
Dominant in European club rugby, winning five out of the last seven Heineken Cups, and enjoying plenty of recent success in the Six Nations, Ireland has failed to deliver anywhere near their potential on the global stage. Seven Rugby World Cup tournaments, 30 matches, 17 wins and five quarter-final appearances is not a record any established Tier One nation would be particularly proud of.
Indeed it says a lot about how the tournament has consistently been a graveyard for Irish hopes when so many people nominate Ireland’s dramatic quarter-final loss to Australia in 1991 as their stand-out Rugby World Cup moment.
Buoyed by the deeds of Munster, then Leinster, Ireland went to France in 2007 and New Zealand four years later better placed than ever to make a serious challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup. But they came up well short on both occasions, leaving the feeling that the Rugby World Cup is nothing but an Irish saga of ifs, buts and maybes.
With RWC 2015 no doubt being one tournament too far for many of the ‘Golden Generation’ of players that delivered the Grand Slam in 2009 - their first for 61 years, it will now be left to a new wave of players to right the wrongs of the past.
After breaking new ground and finishing top of their pool for the first time, a feat made possible by a memorable win over Australia, 2011 was set to be Ireland’s year. Instead of facing one of the southern hemisphere’s ‘big three’, Ireland was paired with Wales in a game that was admittedly too close to call.
Following a shaky start Ireland evened the match up at 10-10 five minutes into the second half and the momentum appeared with them. But the scores remained level for only five minutes as Wales scrum half Mike Phillips stole away on the blindside after an Alun Wyn Jones' drive to give Wales an advantage they would not surrender. As has always been the case, the semi-finals proved a step too far for Ireland.
Defeat to Wales tops and tails Ireland’s Rugby World Cup history. Their opening match in the inaugural tournament of 1987 ended in a 13-6 reverse in Wellington. Ireland did recover to beat Canada and Tonga and make the last eight only for Australia to prove too strong in Sydney.
On to 1991 … and, as previously noted, Ireland’s standout moment. Gordon Hamilton’s breathtaking try brought the capacity crowd at the old Lansdowne Road to its feet, but Michael Lynagh ensured the scenes of jubilation were short-lived by squeezing over in the corner for a match-winning score right at the death.
Ireland made the quarter-finals at the expense of Wales in 1995 after gaining revenge for their defeat in 1987 with a one-point victory at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. A 36-12 loss to France in Durban signalled the end of the road for Ireland that year.
The first World Cup in the professional era witnessed the introduction of quarter-final play-off matches for the five pool runners-up and the best third placed team. Ireland had finished second to Australia in Pool E and a home tie at Lansdowne Road in the quarter-finals proper lay in wait. However Argentina had other ideas and, after a second-half comeback, the Pumas won through 28-24.
History repeated itself in the 2003 tournament after Ireland finished second best to Australia in the pool stages. But, in the process, they did gain revenge for their defeat to Argentina in the previous tournament with a one-point win at the Adelaide Oval. A 43-21 loss to a much more powerful French side ended Ireland’s interest for another four years.
Ireland were nearly on the wrong end of what would have been the biggest upset in Rugby World Cup finals history had a Girvan Dempsey try not spared their blushes against Georgia in 2007. As it was, the nerve-jangling win only served to paper over the cracks and Ireland returned home from France prematurely after Argentina ended their interest in the final pool match.
Brian Robinson and Keith Wood hold the distinction of being the only forwards to score four tries in a Rugby World Cup match. Number 8 Brian Robinson became the first player to score four tries in a game for Ireland in the 1991 match against Zimbabwe, while Wood’s quartet of scores came against the USA in Dublin eight years later.
Ronan O’Gara is Ireland’s all-time leading points scorer in Rugby World Cups. The Munster man has accumulated 93 points in 14 appearances, putting him 22nd on the overall list.
With five minutes left on the clock and Ireland losing 15-12 to Australia in the quarter-final of the 1991 Rugby World Cup, a break by the home side resulted in the ball being popped into the hands of the charging Gordon Hamilton. Never before – or since – had the flanker shown such a turn of pace. But roared on by the packed house Hamilton just had just enough gas left in the tank to outstrip the Wallaby covering defence and score a try that sparked off some of the most jubilant scenes the old Lansdowne Road had ever seen.
Missing out on a home quarter-final against France in 1999 was hard for Ireland to take as they went into the play-off match against Argentina as overwhelming favourites. By 2007 Argentina had the respect of the rugby world and completed a hat-trick of wins over Ireland in the same calendar year with a well-deserved World Cup victory in Paris.
“It's a dismissive term to say the Irish team are plucky because it rings back to the old days when we went out and gave it a lash, set our hair on fire and ran after the opposition for 20 minutes and, if they survived that, they beat us by 50 points," - Coach Eddie O'Sullivan rejects suggestions that the 17-16 loss to Australia in RWC 2003 was just another 'heroic' Irish defeat.
“The heart is willing, the head is willing but the body's had enough,” - Ireland hooker and captain Keith Wood on hanging up his boots after the 2003 tournament.
Up until Rugby World Cup 2003 Ireland had never before played an international match in a stadium with the roof closed. They did so on two occasions at the Telstra Dome in Australia – against the host nation and France – and lost them both.
Ireland will bid to become the fourth and final Home Nation to pass the century mark for tries scored in the Rugby World Cup when the 2015 tournament gets underway. They currently have 96 to their name, compared to England’s 131, Wales (115) and Scotland (113).
Ireland had the oldest squad at RWC 2011, boasting an average age of 29 years, 34 days.