TOKYO, 21 Oct – For a squad that had achieved so much during Joe Schmidt's six-year tenure, a record 32-point defeat by New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup 2019 quarter-finals was a deeply painful way to go out. Ireland are too honest a team to sugar-coat the situation: more than anyone, these players know they have failed once again on the biggest stage.
Before the tournament, Ireland were upfront about their ambition: getting beyond the quarter-finals for the first time was the minimum expectation. With New Zealand or South Africa lying in wait in the quarter-finals, that was always going to be easier said than done, but the shock defeat by Japan in their second pool game threw Ireland off course. Despite some words of bravado, they never really recovered.
It all started so well. They were clinical and accurate in seeing off Scotland 27-3 in Yokohama and it looked as if they were coming into form at the right time after a number of poor performances earlier in the year.
Suddenly, optimism soared. It seemed Ireland might be edging back to the outstanding form that appeared to make them genuine World Cup contenders when they rounded off a brilliant 2018 campaign by defeating the All Blacks in Dublin.
In Shizuoka, however, they were second to Japan in every department and besides losing the game 19-12, they lost control of their own destiny. Ultimately, it would pitch them against an irresistible All Blacks team in the knockout stages and not South Africa, as had been widely expected.
A second underwhelming display in beating Russia caused further soul-searching, even if Schmidt put on a brave face when he insisted he was largely happy with how his team had played. Against Samoa in their final pool game, Ireland were much better. They did enough to convince themselves – and many observers outside the camp – that they had a big performance in them.
Ireland at their very best would have struggled against a New Zealand team in such remarkable form, but it would have been some consolation to have gone out of the tournament after playing to the limit of their capabilities. They were drastically short of that.
Before the game, Irish players spoke about the importance of walking off the pitch at the end knowing they had done themselves justice, regardless of the outcome. They did not – and it will hurt for a long time to come.
"Heartbroken would not be far away from how I feel and how the players feel," said Schmidt.
For an Ireland coach with an unrivalled record of achievement, it was a devastating experience for Schmidt to lose so badly to the nation of his birth, after he had fashioned two historic victories against the All Blacks, in 2016 and 2018.
For more than six years, Schmidt has been utterly consumed by a job he now vacates, with defence coach Andy Farrell about to step up.
As he acknowledged in the media conference after Ireland’s elimination, the high point for Schmidt's team came a year too early in the World Cup cycle. The Ireland of 2018 had more verve, more accuracy, better discipline, a much lower error count. They could have been contenders in Japan, but a less confident squad stepped off the plane and only flattered to deceive against Scotland.
Schmidt's tenure was characterised by a cautious approach to team selection and a heavy reliance on the players who served him so well over the years. That did not change in Japan and ultimately the key men who helped him mastermind so many successes could not find their form of old.
Player of the tournament
Centre Garry Ringrose was in superb form early in the tournament and how his country needed him, with the injured Robbie Henshaw only making his entry in the final pool game. Ringrose, pictured below scoring against Japan, was the only Ireland player to start the first three pool games and he played the full 80 minutes every time. He did enough in those to lay claim to being Ireland’s best player in Japan, ahead of number eight CJ Stander, but the competition for that distinction was less than intense.
Memorable moment off the pitch
Not for the first time, Ireland's ever-passionate supporters had a better World Cup than the players they cheered from first to last. They have an extraordinary ability to get their hands on tickets, with the result that many Irish players talked about playing home games in Japan, such was the level of noise from their fans. That peaked in the moments before the quarter-final kicked off, when a rousing chorus of The Fields of Athenry completely drowned out the New Zealand haka.
Memorable moment on the pitch
The rampaging Tadhg Furlong put his head down and beat four defenders to score a remarkable try in Ireland’s bonus-point win against Samoa in Fukuoka.
Andy Farrell, Ireland’s defence coach, now has the unenviable task of lifting a group of players who will be scarred by this experience. His first task will be to appoint a new captain, following the retirement of that marvellous servant Rory Best, pictured top. Farrell may opt for Johnny Sexton in the short-term, but many feel that the gifted second-row forward James Ryan, just 23, is an Ireland captain in waiting.
#RWC2019— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) October 19, 2019
An emotional final interview with one of the greatest players to wear the Irish jersey and a true gentleman. Thank you @RoryBest2#ShoulderToShoulder #TeamOfUs #NZLvIRE pic.twitter.com/XbKGVpexHe
Another young gun, Jordan Larmour, acquitted himself well in his first World Cup and looks like a long-term option at full-back and Farrell will surely be looking to freshen up the team in other areas.
Quotes of the tournament
"You carry your scars a lot more than your successes and the scars are deep and that is why I am a bit broken by it. But when I get some distance to reflect, we’ve had maybe 75 test matches and won 75 per cent of them." – coach Joe Schmidt.
"It's deja vu all over again. We shot ourselves in the foot and New Zealand capitalised on it. It's hard enough playing against them with our A game, never mind our D game." – winger Keith Earls.
How did they do?
Beat Scotland 27-3
Lost to Japan 19-12
Beat Russia 35-0
Beat Samoa 47-5
Lost to New Zealand 46-14
Ireland by numbers
7 - The number of times Ireland have been knocked out in the World Cup quarter-finals. They were also eliminated in a play-off to reach the quarter-finals (1999) and in the pool phase (2007).
32 – The number of missed Ireland tackles against New Zealand – and also the points difference between the teams. An error-strewn performance from a team that rose, briefly, to No.1 in the world on the back of a strong defence.
13 – The uncharacteristic number of penalties conceded by Ireland against New Zealand. This compares with only five given away when Ireland beat the All Blacks in November 2018.