The Irish rugby squad has fallen short at the World Cup Quarter Finals in the Stade de France. Losing to New Zealand 28-24, the game marked the end of Captain Johnny Sexton’s career and the last World Cup campaign for several of the squad’s most iconic players.
Going into the second half the Irish were one point down having clawed their way back from a 13-0 deficit in the latter stages of the first half. The “quarter final curse” struck again by the final whistle with Ireland making uncharacteristic errors and having some overall poor luck. Credit must be given to New Zealand, who went into the game as the underdogs, were quicker to the breakdown with and without possession. Along with their line speed, the All Blacks never allowed Ireland to play on their terms.
In a World Cup that was hailed to bring an end to the curse the Irish have once again not seen past a Quarter Final. Entering the second half they were chasing the game. A series of unfortunate errors including Dan Sheehan narrowly missing a kicked ball from Mack Hansen, a missed tackle that led to a New Zealand try from Will Jordan and a missed penalty by Sexton sealed the match for New Zealand. Not even an impressive 37 phases of play from the Irish at the end could close the gap.
Many players were visibly emotional as the final whistle was blown. Players including Bundee Aki, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and of course Sexton were captured by the cameras. Given their ages, it’s unlikely any of these players will see another World Cup. Speaking in the press conference after the game Sexton was asked to reflect on his career in green jersey: “It’s been a dream come true for all of us, and I include today as well.”
Sexton praised the fans that have made the journey to France: “How can you be prouder to be Irish when you see what’s happened over the last six weeks really? We get behind the team like no other, it’s incredible and it’s not wasted on us.” He noted how this was “so hard to take” because they “didn’t give [the fans] another couple of weekends”.
In the immediate aftermath of the match Sexton could be seen with his son who looked at him and said: “You’re still the best, Dad.” When asked about where Ireland goes from here in the context of his retirement he said: “This group will bounce back. They’re an incredible group, led by the man beside me [Andy Farrell]. The best group I have ever been a part of, bar none.” Speaking about his future he said: “These guys, they will go on and achieve great things, and I’ll be sitting in the stand, having a pint like you lads.”
Ireland Head Coach Andy Farrell shared in Sexton’s disappointment saying: “Over the next 24 hours, it’s time to make sure that we get a smile back on our faces as soon as we possibly can and celebrate what has been some unbelievable careers and what they have done for Irish rugby. It’s important to us, that.”
“Sport can be cruel sometimes, that’s why we love it so much, but I’ll reflect on it more over the coming days. My initial feeling is that I’m unbelievably proud of the group, how they handled themselves, not just today but all through the tournament, over the last couple of years. That will be my overriding feeling.”
Farrell also praised Sexton and his impact on Irish rugby: “I’ve just said to the group in the changing room that the reason I know they are going to keep on learning is because of this guy sat beside me [Sexton]. The impact he has had on the rest of the team the last four years has been amazing.”
“The way that he has conducted himself as a leader, as a rugby player and the way that he has shown the love for playing for Ireland will be remembered and connected to this group for many years to come. So, through his example the younger guys will keep on getting better and striving to be better. There’s no doubt about that.”
A night of disappointment for the Irish and a Quarter Final curse left unbroken by possibly the best Ireland squad we’ve ever seen. With Sexton and others departing in advance of the next World Cup it remains to be seen how younger players will pick up the pieces. If one thing is for certain it’s that both Farrell and Sexton have complete faith in them to do so. Still it remains the biggest disappointment in Irish rugby in recent memory. It can all be summed up by the players’ words in the aftermath: “It’s hard to take.”