I started this trip just before the Rugby World Cup kicked off. Back then, there wasn’t a huge amount of hope for Irish glory, after a run of defeats in friendly games. However, as I managed to sneak Internet access across Asia, I heard about a string of victories instead: a hard-fought win over the U.S., an almighty upset against Australia, and a competent demolition of Russia. When I finally got to see them play, in a British pub in Los Angeles, I watched one of their most solid performances in years as they first ground down and then broke Italy to claim top spot in their qualifying group.
Then last night I watched the quarterfinal against Wales in Wellington. Ouch.
The immediate reaction among the pundits seemed to be that Ireland had played well but had come up against a superior Welsh side. True as far as it goes, but one suspects that the team won’t find much solace in that notion. There may not have been any disastrous performances on the Irish side, but the tactics employed didn’t make a massive amount of sense.
In the first half, apart from Shane Williams’ 3rd-minute try, Ireland seemed to be intent on keeping a Wales side who were dangerous with ball in hand from ever getting that ball. And it worked: Ireland looked by far the most likely team to score, threatening the Welsh line several times. You could argue that O’Gara should have kicked for goal a few more times, but he took the one kick that was a nailed-on certainty. Going in at half time 10-3 down but in control, what was needed was patience. Instead, the second half saw a reversion to bad habits.
Keith Earls sneaked in for a try early on, and O’Gara added the conversion to level the scores. However, with Ireland opting to kick and chase, rarely with any hope of challenging for the resulting ball, Wales had plenty of possession, and they were all too keen to use it. After Mike Phillips copied Earls with a try in the corner to put Wales ahead again, Ireland looked momentarily panicked and rushed, with the normally solid O’Driscoll and Healy making errors. In the end, another try put the result beyond reach, and all the pressure that Ireland applied went nowhere.
All credit to Wales for executing an intelligent plan with passion and determination, earning a deserved win. Ireland, though, will know that they could have done much better. For many in the team, it was their last shot at a World Cup, and to miss out at the quarterfinals again will hurt badly. It may not have been what those stalwarts deserved, but the sad thing about sport is that what you get is not so much what you deserve as what you earn.
(Oh, and I’m not going to comment on England getting dumped out by the perennially surprising French other than to say that the All Blacks will be none too happy to see their regular World Cup nemeses showing signs of life once more…)