Ireland have appeared at every Rugby World Cup since the competition’s inception in 1987. Now as the ninth iteration of the tournament approaches, Ireland are still searching for their first quarter final victory. Circumstances and excuses abound every four years as Ireland bow out of the championship. Most recently in 2015, Ireland were knocked out after being eviscerated by what was a beatable Argentina side after suffering a swathe of injuries in their final group game against France.
In 2018, with the Japan World Cup on the horizon, Ireland were seen as firm favourites to cause an upset in Tokyo. Not only were people expecting the team to break their quarter final curse but many saw them as contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy itself. They had won the Grand Slam in the Six Nations for only the third time in their history. They had beaten Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in a twelve month period. The hype that surrounded the team was well deserved.
But then everything changed. Ireland were woeful during the most recent Six Nations and have yet to regain the form that saw them beat the All Blacks. With a paltry victory over Italy followed by a humiliating defeat to England, Ireland are arguably in the worst form of Joe Schmidt’s tenure.
The match against England was an eye-opener to anyone who thought that Ireland could bounce back after their dismal Six Nations. A record defeat under Joe Schmidt saw England run in eight tries, highlighting the many flaws in Ireland’s game plan. Ireland have traditionally built their success on solid foundations. By doing the little things well, they could create space and opportunities for scores. However, against England, Ireland were a shambles. With 34 missed tackles, 11 turnovers conceded and five line-outs lost, Ireland didn’t give themselves any concrete platform from which to attack, and defensively they were all over the place. Apart from a moment of brilliance from Jacob Stockdale, Ireland never looked like creating anything and even that chip-and-chase could hardly make up for Stockdale’s defensive lapses throughout the match.
“The rankings should not blind the Irish faithful to the cracks that England took advantage of”
All that being said, the blame for the result can hardly be laid at the feet of one person. It was a team-wide lapse in form. Comments have been made that if a player like Simon Zebo was in the squad or if Jack Carty had started, they could provide the spark that would set the team alight. But, in reality, one person could not change the team in that way. Having an exciting player is all well and good, but if the coach does not build the team to fit that mould, the other players won’t be on the same hymn sheet and the discordance will only grow. It is clear to see from recent matches that the slow phase play that Ireland based their previous successes is outdated. England made 13 offloads compared to Ireland’s two and those offloads led to several of their tries by having runners hit small gaps at speed just outside of contact. Ireland will need to seriously reevaluate how they play if they are going to find any joy in Japan.
Are there any positives to be drawn before the World Cup begins? Frankly, they are few and far between. The injury count at the moment isn’t too drastic. Losing Joey Carbery was not in the game plan but all sources seem to indicate that Schmidt is going to take him regardless. Decisions like that are eased by the depth of the squad, another boon. Joe Schmidt has many selection options across the park, particularly in the forwards. With final squad selection looming, it remains to be seen who has played themselves out of contention and who has secured their seat on the plane. Beating Wales in back-to-back fixtures for the first time since 2014 certainly showed Ireland’s grit and determination. Fans across the country were given a spark of optimism as Ireland stole the title of world number one from Wales, with the crown barely settled on their heads. The rankings should not blind the Irish faithful to the cracks that England took advantage of but it was great to see Ireland bounce back where once they would have crumbled.
So, what form will Ireland’s demise take when they reach Japan? Luckily, they have been allocated the easiest with group, with clashes against Scotland, Samoa, Russia and hosts Japan on the horizon. In a perfect world, Ireland will finish top of their group but it gets significantly harder from there. The quarter-final clash will either be against New Zealand or South Africa. New Zealand have shown their quality after bouncing back from their loss to Australia by putting them to the sword in the rematch in a 36-0 encounter. Endeavouring to win their third World Cup in a row as well as reclaim their number one ranking, New Zealand will be a tough customer for anyone, let alone Ireland in their current form. While the combination of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett at out-half and full-back is not yet perfect, it is incredibly prolific and gives the All Blacks many playmaking options. Up until recently, this seemed like the worst case scenario for a quarter final clash.
However, Rassie Erasmus has done an incredible job at South Africa. In 2017, Ireland beat the Springboks 38-3 in Erasmus’ first game in charge. Since then, they have gone through a renaissance and discovered a vein of form at the most opportune time. After beating England twice in 2018, they have since conquered Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. Most recently, an undefeated run in the Rugby Championship saw them raise the trophy for the first time in 2009. During the championship, they drew 16-16 with New Zealand, proving now that there is literally nothing between the two teams.
South Africa play a fast-paced style of rugby that is very hard to defend. Known ankle-snapper Cheslin Kolbe will join S’bu Nkosi on the wings, with the young Nkosi recently scoring a startlingly good try against Argentina. Other notable members include Faf de Klerk, Malcolm Marx and the newly discovered of Herschel Jantjies, who scored two tries in his first two caps for the Springboks this summer. However, everything is not necessarily going as planned in their preparations for the World Cup. Eben Etzebeth, the Springbok second row, has recently been accused of racial and physical abuse in the last week and Aphiwe Dyantyi, having scored six tries in 13 appearances, has just failed a drug test. While both players deny their respective accusations, they could both result in bans which could rule them out of heading to Japan.
Most rugby fans will remember Ireland’s fate during the 2007 World Cup where an Ireland team that was full of promise and destined for greatness travelled to France with all intentions of winning the Webb Ellis. However, Ireland struggled to beat smaller teams like Georgia and Namibia and were annihilated by France and Argentina, sending the boys in green home before the knock-out stages. It is easy to get a similar feeling as Ireland head to Japan. A young, exciting Irish team with their best players in their prime, expected to do great things. Unfortunately, Ireland’s dip in form has come even earlier than anticipated so one can only hope that they can recover if not before the tournament, at some point during it. Otherwise, the quarter-final curse is sure to live on.