Categories: Features Rugby

Darren Cave: This Was Supposed To Be Our Year

We’ve beaten the All Blacks on two of the last three occasions, but this Irish team are going to need to return to the form of 2018 if we’re to have any chance of making it three from four, writes Darren Cave.

A subject I’ve been outspoken about in the past is the importance of Johnny Sexton to Ireland, and this was again broadcast to the world with his performance against Samoa. We’ve seen over the past year how Ireland struggle to gain momentum when we get smashed by big teams. We were fine last week as Johnny enabled us to mix up our game when needed.

Bundee Aki Red Card

Having looked in detail at everything in the report from Bundee Aki’s hearing, I can fully understand that it was a red card. However, I can also see that he hasn’t done a huge amount wrong. There is no way he’s gone into that tackle trying to hurt someone, but given the current situation, it probably was a wee bit reckless from the Ireland centre.

Moving forward with those types of decisions, I believe there needs to be more consideration given to mitigating factors, and more flexibility around those. If Bundee makes shoulder contact to the chin with force, I can see why that’s a red card but I think there needs to be flexibility. People have spoken about the bouncing ball, should a loose ball be a mitigating factor?

The same goes for Seilala Lam’s tackle on Jacob Stockdale, should mitigating factors allow sanctions to drop more than one level below entry point? To use this example, there is shoulder contact to the head with force which is a red card offence, but I can’t help thinking Lam hasn’t actually done anything wrong given the body height of Stockdale. Would a penalty have been sufficient punishment?

There were no surprises when Joe Schmidt named Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose to start in the centre against New Zealand. There were calls from some in the media to start Chris Farrell over Henshaw, but they were complete nonsense. If we look at the performances of Bundee since the start of 2018, he’s been ever-present for Ireland. Henshaw and Ringrose have had their own battles with injury, but Aki is the guy that has always played well for us. Given his level of physicality, I think Schmidt would have selected Bundee to partner with Henshaw from the start against the All Blacks, with Ringrose dropping to the bench.

The inclusion of Ringrose, however, does not weaken us to any degree. He is a tremendous player and has been great when he’s played, but I just feel Schmidt would have leaned towards a pairing of Aki-Henshaw if he had a full deck of cards at his disposal.

Size and physicality is an area that makes me nervous about this Ireland team, but Aki’s suspension means we are weakened somewhat in that department.

What Constitutes Success For Ireland On Saturday?

This is the best Ireland team that has ever travelled to a World Cup in terms of quality, preparation, pedigree, and potential. But most importantly, it is an Ireland team that arrived in Japan with the best chance to capitalise on the opportunity in front of them.

If we come home having failed to reach the semi-final again, regardless of what team we’ve lost to, that will be slightly disappointing from an Irish public point of view.

Even if we put in a really strong performance at the weekend and just fall short against the All Blacks, the fine print won’t matter. The reality that we will have failed to progress past the quarter-final stage with the best Ireland team ever will be disappointing for players and fans alike.

This was supposed to be our chance, this was supposed to be our year.

Is anything other than a victory on Saturday a failure? In the grand scheme of things, it would be hard to argue to the contrary. Failure is a strong word, but the campaign will be looked back on as below-par, and a case of unfulfilled potential.

I’ve been part of an Irish World Cup squad, I’ve played with a lot of the current team. In 2015, we won our group, avoided New Zealand and were drawn with Argentina in the quarter-final. We thought, “this is brilliant, semi-finals for the first time”. But then I remember being in the changing room after losing to Argentina and it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It wasn’t like losing in big cup games for Ulster, it was much more heartbreaking than that.

World Cups only come around every four years and as a player, that can prove to be a lifetime in international rugby. If Ireland lose to New Zealand, half the guys in that dressing room will have the same worry and insecurity I had, “will I ever be back? Will I ever play at this level again?”. And that includes the backroom staff and the management.

That dressing room in the Millennium Stadium after the Argentina game is something I’ll never forget. I didn’t play a minute that day, but I had that hope that if I got a chance and we made it to the semi-final, that I’d get a game. It wasn’t to be the case. My mind was racing and the realisation that in four years’ time, I probably wouldn’t be in the World Cup squad, had begun to set in. “That’s me done on this stage.”

Come Saturday afternoon when the Japanese sun sets on what should be a Rugby World Cup-defining match for this Irish team, I’m hopeful for the players that are playing in their last World Cup that their legacy isn’t one of another disappointing Rugby World Cup campaign.

Change In Mindset Against New Zealand

We all hope that despite Joe Schmidt leaving that this Ireland team will continue to build and that in four years’ time we’re even better prepared and more likely to get to a semi-final, but there’s every chance we won’t be.

I’m confident Ireland can beat New Zealand again, but given what I’ve seen from the current side in 2019, I’m not super confident that we will do it.

Think back to the famous victory over the All Blacks in November 2018. There were so many things that day that contributed to us all believing Ireland could beat New Zealand. I went to the Aviva that day thinking, “we’re going to win today. There’s no reason why we should lose today.”

I don’t have that same outlook on Saturday’s game.

We have a chance, but we don’t have the same level of confidence, and my biggest concern is that that’s the exact same mind-frame that the players are battling with.


In November 2018, the players believed “we are a better team than New Zealand at the minute”. Are they in the same frame of mind heading into this quarter-final?

I’d be surprised.

Do we believe from the bottom of our stomachs that we will beat them?

I don’t think so.

It’s much more difficult now because we haven’t provided a lot of evidence recently to suggest that we do, and that’s my biggest concern.

___

Check out our Heineken Match Centre for every match statistic from every game for the Rugby World Cup. It’s a dream for all rugby fans.

Darren Cave

Darren Cave is a former Ireland and Ulster Rugby player.

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