State of the nation
October 26, 2011
Ireland's players stand dejected after their dismal quarter-final exit at the hands of Wales © PA Photos
Ireland's players have had two weeks to try to get the disappointment of their defeat by Wales out of their systems and are once more immersed in the daily grind of club rugby.
Summing up Ireland's World Cup performance is a simple exercise - excellent in the pool, outthought and outfought in the quarter-finals - drawing conclusions is far more complex.
France's remarkable performance in the final - a game they would have won if they had the benefit of fair officiating - should serve as a welcome fillip for European rugby. The gap between the hemispheres now appears minimal and this World Cup will have served to eradicate much of the inferiority complex that existed heretofore.
The Tri Nations heavyweights have traditionally gone into clashes with their Six Nations rivals expecting to win, while their northern counterparts tended to be cowed by the supposedly superior rugby played south of the equator.
However, that should no longer be the case. France, the European nation least troubled by southern reputations, will be stiffened by the knowledge they should now be world champions - despite a tumultuous campaign.
Wales will reflect on how they should have beaten France in the semi-final and the then world champion Springboks in their pool, while England, for all the criticism they have drawn since their departure, had the beating of France in the quarter-final.
Then there is Ireland. They did not just beat Australia in their pool match, they dominated, and to a large extent humiliated, a confident Wallabies outfit. It was the result of the tournament and the fact they could not kick on from there in the knock-out stages is a huge source of frustration for Declan Kidney's squad (many of whom were playing in their last World Cup).
There has been a lot of talk since about the need to bring younger players through and that Ireland's ageing side could not match the youthful verve of the Welsh in that Wellington quarter-final. However, while Ireland had a clutch of over-30s in that side (six in total), that was not the reason they lost, and no-one quibbled with their selection beforehand.
Wales, showing nine changes to the side that scraped past Ireland in March, were a rejuvenated outfit at the World Cup and played extremely well against the Irish, benefitting from superb tactical preparation by Warren Gatland and his coaching staff.
Even so, Ireland dominated possession and territory after conceding an early score to Shane Williams and left several tries behind them. Whatever way you examine it, Ireland should have had the beating of a Welsh side whose players regularly play second fiddle to the Irish in club league and cup competitions. That they didn't reawakens the issue of the Irish sporting psyche - that infuriating truism whereby the Irish have to be up against it and written off to produce their best performances.
There is ample historical evidence of this phenomenon (Munster beating the All Blacks in 1978, the quarter-final performance against Australia in 1991, Warren Gatland's first game in charge of the Irish in Paris in 1998) and much more recent (denying England the Grand Slam and beating the Wallabies). Against Wales, there was a different vibe around the Ireland camp to the quiet determination that had dominated pre-Australia.
Reaching the quarter-finals with that impressive dismantling of the Italians had stirred up considerable interest back home and the bandwagon started to get very crowded. An influx of media and supporters desperate to hitch onto the good news story added to the sense of semi-final inevitability and all the while the Welsh were keeping their heads down and plotting.
While training went well and there were no over-confident pronouncements in press conferences, the Irish players simply were not at the same mental pitch they had been against Australia - or even Italy, when Nick Mallett had riled them up with some ill-advised pre-match baiting.
One could not help thinking that facing the South Africans - who would have been Ireland's quarter-final opponents had they lost to Australia, as expected - would have suited the Irish mindset better as they would have gone into that clash as overwhelming underdogs.
Irish rugby needs to address this mental issue to properly progress. Munster and Leinster managed it when landing four Heineken Cups out of the last six tournaments with both provinces able to handle the mantle of favouritism comfortably at various junctures.
Now that needs to be brought through to the international stage and building the side around the youthful fearlessness of the likes of Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney is a good way to go about it.
As for a captain to replace Brian O'Driscoll looking ahead to England 2015, look no further than Ulster's Rory Best. The hooker, who is playing the best rugby of his career, had a superb tournament and, though he may look older, has only recently turned 29.
This was Ireland's best World Cup performance to date (although that is not saying much) but, if they had found the right mental pitch against Wales, it would have been great. The state of Irish rugby is a state of mind.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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