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The Long Read: Assessing Ireland’s World Cup

As the days sneak by, the pill does not become any sweeter to swallow. The world hasn’t ended, but yet another Irish World Cup journey has been halted abruptly at the last eight stage.

That is now six defeats in six quarter-final games for Ireland at their eight Wold Cup. It’s the second consecutive time Ireland have topped their pool, and secured themselves “easier” passage to a semi-final.

Yet have they again crumbled under the favourites tag and must wait another four years before they can attempt to break their glass ceiling and reach the final four of a World Cup?

Ireland’s squad now return home, and while the general consensus is they fell short collectively, here is how they fared individually.

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Top Of The Class

It’s often said you learn more in defeat than in victory and Sunday’s quarter-final breakdown horror show backs this up. Ireland missed Peter O’Mahony’s presence on the ground and his insatiable work rate around the field, the 26-year-old was arguably Ireland’s biggest loss against the Pumas. The Munster man was Ireland’s Player of the Tournament and could well be captain by the time the Irish get to the next World Cup in 2019.

Ulster’s Iain Henderson came into the tournament straddling the line between starter and impact sub. He excelled in Ireland’s opening pool games when he carried and tackled with manic intent. His showing off the bench against France proved he his more than ready to be a key player at this level, but was largely subdued against an Argentinian defence that hardly allowed him an inch. His five turnovers was a joint-team high for the tournament.

Jack McGrath started the tournament keeping the Irish number 1 warm for Cian Healy, but as the pool progressed it was clear he was the form player. He can consider himself hugely unlucky to be overlooked from the start against Argentina and brought a level of aggression after his introduction off the bench that surpassed that of any of the starters. He will be a key player for Ireland moving forward.

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Heads Held High

It was supposed to be a glorious send off in the green jersey for one of the greatest players Ireland has ever seen. Unfortunately for Paul O’Connell his tournament and international career ended abruptly with his hamstring visibly ripping from the bone against France. O’Connell’s absence was no doubt a cause for Ireland’s demise.

Brought along as a number of utility backs to this tournament Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald can look back on this tournament with proud memories. Earls looked incisive on the wing and he was Ireland’s joint-top try scorer with three, the third of which made him Ireland’s leading scorer in World Cup history.

He moved into the centre for the clashes with the French and Argentinians. He is often criticised for his defence, but that held up strongly against more physical opponents. Unfortunately he didn’t get much chance with ball in hand in midfield to show his attacking attributes at their best.

As for Fitzgerald, the Leinsterman was the only Irish man on the park against the Pumas showing some spark and invention. Easy to say in hindsight but should have started ahead of Dave Kearney who is short of attacking prowess at this level.

A further utility back who will feel harshly done by is Munster’s Simon Zebo. Deployed in two pool games at full back, he was solid defensively and threatening on the front foot. He started only twice, both at full back, and didn’t cross for a try but did create three. His reward for looking dangerous in the pool was to be omitted for Ireland’s final two games.

At 33, this is undoubtedly Rory Best’s last World Cup and the veteran went out with a bang. Was probably Ireland’s best player in defeat to Argentina and has a wonderful knack of coming up with big turnovers at the breakdown, contributing three at the tournament. Ireland’s lineout functioned well, losing only one throw over the course of the competition.

Ending the tournament as Ireland’s captain due to Paul O’Connell’s injury, Jamie Heaslip was one of the few to emerge from the Argentinian clash with reputation enhanced. It was his best showing of the tournament, but he missed his regular backrow partners O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien as Ireland were bested in an area they like to dominate.

Having had to wait until the Italian game to make his World Cup bow, Robbie Henshaw took to the competition like a duck to water. A fine outing against Italy, in which he produced a mature midfield display, followed by a terrific game against the French had some labelling him world-class. The Connacht man tried ably against the Argentinians but his inexperience showed when he ignored a three on one overlap early in the second half that would have put Ireland in front. He will be better for this tournament however, and will be central to Ireland for the next decade.

Tommy Bowe may have been lucky to make Ireland’s final 31-man squad after a year and a half blighted by injuries and poor form. The Ulsterman defied the critics though and played himself into form with two tries against the Romanians followed by a solid day chasing and reclaiming high kicks against the Italians. His tournament was cut short in the first half against the Argentinians thanks to a knee injury, and Ireland lacked his physical presence thereafter.

Having belatedly arrived at international level, Nathan White was a solid foil for Mike Ross off the bench throughout the competition. At 34, he’s not the future but could be a short term solution for a year or so to allow the likes of Tadgh Furlong and Marty Moore to mature.

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Mixed Fortunes

Sean O’Brien produced his best performances in a green jersey in about 18 months against France, but his foolish punch into Pascal Pape’s midriff ruled him out of Ireland’s quarter-final. As one of Ireland’s most experienced players and leaders, that loss of focus ultimately cost his team dear. He would have matched Argentina’s physicality and given Ireland another ball carrying option they sorely lacked.

Central to Irish hopes of success in the lead up to this tournament were the fortunes of their half backs. Conor Murray was steady throughout without being spectacular and showed his nous with his smart try against the French, but his inaccuracies with his box kicks and inability to inject quick tempo into the Irish backline against Argentina proved to be fatal.

Having guided Ireland to what everyone thought was a seismic victory against the French, Ian Madigan’s outpouring of emotion could have reflected the thoughts of a nation. However, getting back to that same emotional pitch a week later proved beyond Madigan and Ireland. His inexperience in such a crunch game shone through when he missed a kick that could have levelled matters for Ireland, followed soon after by kicking out on the full from deep in his own half.

He’s been Ireland’s first choice lock throughout the Joe Schmidt era, and Devin Toner played the game of his life against the French. He ruled the skies and brought a dominance on the ground in terms of tackling and carrying we had never witnessed from him before. Yet he was another to struggle against the more physical Argentina pack and was targeted in the defensive line when quicker Pumas skipped around him with ease.

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Should Have Done Better

Chris Henry has become a staple of Irish match day squads. Ireland’s fourth choice backrow is a favourite of Schmidt. The 31-year-old got his chance on the openside in place of Sean O’Brien for the Argentina game but was part of a backrow outmuscled by a superior Pumas unit. Probably Ireland’s best out-and-out 7, but didn’t thrive in an unfamiliar trio.

Jordi Murphy may not have seen too much action at the World Cup and but for injuries and suspensions that would have remained the case. Affected two turnovers and crossed for a try against Argentina yet was too often overpowered in a struggling back row. Further proof that coming into a World Cup undercooked is a recipe for disaster.

Cian Healy was a shell of the barnstorming loose head beast we have become accustomed to and was relatively ineffectual in the ball carrying stakes and shouldn’t have started against Argentina.

For the brothers Kearney, reference the brothers Grimm. Neither of the two Louthmen will be looking back on the quarter-final with fond memories. Between them they missed eight tackles and four of Argentina’s tries came down Dave’s wing. Rob finished the tournament with three tries but two of them were run-ins against pool also-rans and neither looked like potent attacking weapons for the duration of Ireland’s tournament.

Perhaps a year too far for Mike Ross who looked every one of his 35 years as he was floundering in the defensive line against the Pumas. He held up OK in the scrum against Italy and France but struggled at times against a younger and more aggressive scrummager in the quarter-final. Ross may have played his last game at this level.

It’s difficult to evaluate Jonathan Sexton’s tournament as he didn’t feature in Ireland’s most important games (save for 20 minutes against France). Sexton looked sharp and primed against Canada but toiled against Italy when Ireland, as a whole, were off the pace. The injury picked up against France ended his tournament before it really got going and a he’ll be 34 by the next World Cup. The Leinster man will rue this missed opportunity.

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Unexposed

Of Ireland’s 31-man squad, all saw some action. Jared Payne missed every game except one with injury while Donnacha Ryan, Sean Cronin, Richardt Strauss, Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave and Tadgh Furlong only sampled minutes against the bottom feeders of Pool D or had fleeting appearances off the bench in Ireland’s key games.

Rhys Ruddock and Mike McCarthy were called up to cover for injuries and didn’t effect Ireland’s progress, or lack thereof.

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Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

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