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Ireland's Rugby World Cup Review

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Looking back to Ireland’s Rugby World Cup performance

Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent

And so, a World Cup journey that promised so much ends in that all too familiar, bitter disappointment of another quarter-final exit. 

This time was supposed to be different, and for a while it felt like it really was going to be. That it wasn’t will haunt this Ireland squad for a long, long time because not only were they good enough to make a semi-final for the first time, but they were capable of going all the way.

That’s all ifs, buts and maybes now, yet it is difficult to shake the sense that this was a World Cup that got away from Ireland. 

As Andy Farrell said in the immediate aftermath of last weekend’s heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand, this is the end of an era – one that has delivered some unforgettable highs but it’s also one that ultimately fell short of expectations.

A few days have passed, but it’s still hard to get your head around the fact that we have seen the last of Johnny Sexton on a rugby pitch. 

The talismanic captain struggled to contain his emotions as the reality hit home that this Ireland team’s journey was over, as well as his own career. 

Sexton will go down as one of, if not, the country’s greatest player, as he played such a vital role in demanding high standards of everyone involved in Irish rugby. 

He will be missed, and so to will Keith Earls, whose retirement may not have garnered as many headlines, but the Limerick man’s absence will also leave a huge void going forward.

Farrell is confident that the level of exciting talent emerging through the ranks is good enough to help smooth the transition, as the Ireland head coach begins to build a new team.

His task will be helped by having the likes of second-row James Ryan, hooker Dan Sheehan, No 8 Caelan Doris and full-back Hugo Keenan to backbone his fresh plans. 

For, this is not like previous World Cup failures, where the script needed to be ripped up. 

Ireland were unlucky to have been handed such a difficult draw, and although no one will look to use that as an excuse, there is no doubt that it was a factor. 

Even still, everything appeared to be going according to plan, as Ireland built off last year’s historic series win in New Zealand, by storming to the Grand Slam and embarking on an incredible 17-game winning run. 

It feels like a long time ago now, but the World Cup campaign had started so brightly in Bordeaux, as Ireland managed the searing heat to ruthlessly dispatch Romania, before they did something similar to Tonga in Nantes a week later. 

The Irish support in France had been remarkable from the get-go, and anyone lucky enough to have experienced it will surely have fond memories for life. 

As The Cranberries' ‘Zombie’ got its first airing following the win over Romania, you sensed something special was building between this Ireland team and its loyal fan base, who spent their hard-earned cash to make the expensive trek to France.

By the time Ireland reached the crucial pool meeting with South Africa, they were humming, and having downed the defending champions in an epic battle, belief was at an all-time high. 

A break week allowed the bodies and minds to recover before Scotland were also put to the sword to leave Ireland top of the pool heading into the knockout stages. 

The pressure ramped up as talk of the quarter-final ‘curse’ returned, but Farrell and his players appeared undaunted by the prospect of taking on the All Blacks at Stade de France. 

We will never know how much nerves played a part, but giving New Zealand a 13-0 head start was Ireland’s undoing because while they showed outstanding courage and skill to claw their way back into the contest, Farrell’s side left themselves with too much to do.

There is no shame in being beaten by the All Blacks, especially not when they pulled out their best performance in years. And that’s what will really hurt Ireland, as they were not able to do the same.

If you are a fraction off it against the world’s best, they will punish you. Ireland dished out plenty of that kind of punishment over the last 18 months, but the quarter-final once again proved to be a step too far. 

In Bundee Aki, Ireland arguably had the player of the tournament to date. Like Keenan, Aki played all 400 minutes of Ireland’s campaign, scoring five tries and delivering consistently excellent performances.

Younger players like Joe McCarthy and Jack Crowley showed that they have bright futures in green, as the page begins to turn. 

With the disappointment still so raw and fresh in the memory, it can be difficult to look at what’s coming down the line, but Irish rugby is in a good place. 

The Ireland U-20s have enjoyed great success in recent years, and there is no doubt that the next generation will have been inspired by what Farrell’s men achieved.

The journey has come to a shuddering halt, but no one can take away Ireland’s historic achievements up to now. 

Four years is a long time to have to wait until the next World Cup, and while the squad at Australia 2027 will look very different, there is every reason to feel optimistic about what lies ahead, even if we may never see the likes of Sexton again.

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