Why have Ireland failed at the Rugby World Cup?

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Jan 15, 2023, 13:02

It’s one of rugby’s most famous hoodoos. Despite all of Ireland's Six and Five Nations titles, its Grand Slams, famous victories and obvious talent, it still hasn’t managed to reach a World Cup semi-final. 

Much like New Zealand before 2011 there is a not unwarranted reputation that Ireland ‘choke’ when it comes to big knockout games, especially match-ups where talent level appears to be similar. 

Why have they choked then? Looking at the past quarter-finals it appears this proud nation have either not risen to the occasion, or come up against teams just that bit better. 

It should be said the author of this piece is half-Irish, so criticism directed at the teams comes from a place of love. He would love nothing more than seeing a smile on the face of his old man seeing his team finally break the ‘curse’.

Here, The Flankler looks at Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final exits chronologically, and the heartbreak which seems now inevitable every four years.  

1987

In their appearance at the first World Cup, Ireland had the misfortune of coming up against an Australia team just a few years away from a decade of success at the World Cup. 

With talent like Matt Burke (no, not that one), David Campese and Michael Lynagh bossing his pack around the field, this was always going to be a difficult game for the Emerald isle and so it proved as Australia scored 27 unanswered points to put the game to bed well before the final whistle. 

With Burke sniping over for two tries and Lynagh metronomic off the tee, Ireland had little chance in this one despite fine tries from Hugo MacNeill and Mike Keirnan late on. 

Ultimately a comprehensive win for the Aussies in Sydney, the highlights are well worth a watch for Australian Nick Farr-Jones getting his head taken off from a charge down by flanker Philip Matthews with the referee seeing fit not to award any penalty. Certainly a different era. 

1991

While Ireland could have no complaints at the first World Cup, the stinging loss four years later at Lansdowne Road is still talked about to this day as one of Ireland’s nearest misses. 

Despite looking imperious during the group stage, Australia were just minutes away from losing to an underdog Ireland side which had come second in their group to Scotland, who would make their only semi-final appearance at the ‘91 tournament. 

Immediately off the bat there was fireworks, with John Eales and Neil Francis trading haymakers in the early minutes. Despite two tries from David Campese, Australia could not shake off an Ireland team roared on by a packed crowd and fly-half Ralph Keye’s goal kicking keeping them in it. 

Then, late in the game, came the try which is one of the most famous in Ireland history. Off a scrum in Ireland's half, Jim Staples stabbed through a kick which was collected by Jack Clarke. Then, it seemed as time stood still as he was tackled by Marty Roebuck.  

Still on his feet, Clarke shipped off an offload to flanker Gordon Hamilton who steamed in from nearly forty metres to score what looked like the winning try for Ireland. Fans invaded the pitch as Hamilton, whose score was the only one in his international career sat, right arm aloft, in triumph. 

Hearts were broken almost immediately. Australia with a scrum on the Irish 5 metre line shipped the ball down to Campese who looked like he was covered and had nowhere to go. 

Somehow, some way, as he fell to the ground the enigmatic wing flicked an offload off the floor to Michael Lynagh who went in on the corner. The life inside the stadium was sucked out immediately, thousands of fans put their hands on their heads. 

Australia would end up winning that year’s World Cup. Ireland had just experienced their first World Cup heartbreak. 

1995

After coming through a group with both Wales and New Zealand, Ireland were comprehensively defeated by a France team boasting the likes of Philip Saint-Andre and Emile Ntamack who both scored in the clash. 

With Thierry Lecroux making the most of Irish ill-discipline with 8 penalties, this went down as a quarter-final loss where Ireland simply came up against the better team, a team which would push eventual winners South Africa close in the semi-finals. 

More ill-discipline would punish the Irish four years later where they would lose out to Argentina in a quarter-final playoff. 

2003

Yet another comprehensive loss this year, yet again to the French, would culminate a campaign which was not entirely without hope for Ireland. With O’Gara, O’Driscoll and O’Connell all making their bows at a World Cup there was reason to be hopeful.

This campaign could perhaps be seen as a ‘what if’ as Ireland would have played Scotland in the quarter-finals had they beaten Australia in their group stage match.

Despite giving the hosts a scare they would instead play a classic French team. Frederic Michalak nailed every kick as legends like Chrisphe Dominici and Imanol Harinordoquy crossed the line for Les Bleus. 

Kevin Maggs and two O’Driscoll tries would put some more shine to a scoreline but this was another tough loss to take for the Irish. 

2011

After suffering an ugly group-stage exit in 2007. Ireland arrived in 2011 with added purpose. A dominating win against Australia in the group stage put them in pole position and they were favourites for the quarter-final against Wales in Wellington. 

Only one team turned out to play however. Gatland’s mix of youthful energy and experience burst out of the blocks when Shane Williams went over in the corner just after the second minute of the game. 

Despite opportunities for points Ireland went in 10-3 at the break, but got back to even when Keith Earls scored just after half time. However, it would prove to be the last score of the game for the Irish. 

Ireland switched off yet again. Mike Phillips sprinted down an unguarded blind side and acrobatically finished off a try to put Wales ahead, before Jonathan Davies evaded tackles he shouldn’t have evaded to go over yet again. 

After a strong group stage effort it was a devastating loss for Ireland who threw away their best chance at a World Cup. With France to play in the semi-finals and a nervy All Blacks in the final, Ireland were left lamenting once again. 

2015

Four years later Ireland looked to be in an even stronger position. Since the appointment of world class coach Joe Schmidt, they had taken two Six Nations titles and had shown remarkable improvement in their game. 

They topped a group containing France, but at a cost. Jonathan Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Paul O’Connell were injured during pool stage games, leaving Schmidt unable to pick his first strength side for the fixture in Cardiff. However it still meant a quarter-final against Argentina, who they had not lost to since 2007. 

They were blitzed from the outset. Matias Moroni and Juan Imhoff, who were electric all day, scored brilliant tries and Ireland were 14-0 down almost immediately. Only at 20-3 down and with tighthead Ramiro Herrera in the sin bin did Ireland strike back with Luke Fitzgerald scoring a brilliant solo try to make the score 20-10. 

Fitzgerald, who had replaced the injured Tommy Bowe early on, repeated the feat again early in the second half by bursting through the Argentinian line and offloading sharply to Jordi Murphy who crashed over to put Ireland within one score. 

It would be all Argentina from there, however. 

Nicolas Sanchez’s peerless kicking gave the Argentians a six point lead before they finished the game how it had started. Joaquin Tuculet finished sublimely in the corner after quick hands, before Imhoff put a nail in the coffin with a solo try, finger aloft as he swan dived over the white wash. 

By full time it was 43-20 to Argentina and they full deserved it. Ireland were a sickly team and just could not handle the pace a power of an Argentina team some could argue was better than the 07’ vintage. 

2019

The most recent entry serves as a sort of return to form for Ireland who were simply outclassed by a better team who would have put 50 on Ireland had Richie Mo’unga connected with all of his conversions. 

It seemed the All Blacks could do what they wanted at will. Offloading, cross field kicks and crisp passing opened up the Ireland team. George Bridge’s score is perhaps the pick of the bunch and well worth your time. 

Henshaw and a penalty try put a touch of respectability on the score but this match again highlighted the issues Ireland had faced under Schmidt, and indeed every World Cup they have entered. 

Less than a year previously Ireland had beaten the All Blacks for the first time at home with a thoroughly professional display, 16-9. From that point on however, it seemed Ireland were going backwards. 

You can criticise Steve Hanson’s decision to put Beauden Barrett at 15 in the absence of Damien Mckenzie, but the All Blacks coach was innovating and trying to update his team so they were the best they could be when it really mattered, at the World Cup. 

Although attempts may have been made on the training pitch it was not obvious Schmidt had updated Ireland’s style of play, and were found out by teams playing a fast, relentless brand of rugby like the All Blacks and Japan in the group stages. 

Eddie Jones, Warren Gatland, and Jamie Joseph all had plans to peak for the 2019 World Cup and they were rewarded, even if there were hiccups along the way. Andy Farrell must now not be afraid to see the next three years as a journey to getting Ireland that elusive first knockout victory when France 2023 comes around. 

Jan 15, 2023, 13:21

The above did not deal with a crucial loss by Ireland against Japan - which resulted in them being second in their pool ending up playing the AB's in the quarters and not SA.   At the start of the WC in 2019 was the number 1 ranked team in the world.   So why did they not do better?

The answer could be that Ireland away from home does not perform well enough and they are in fact poor travelers.   The other part is some of their aging players are not performing well enoughin crucial matches.     The other part as to Ireland is probably contained in the following:-

Eddie Jones, Warren Gatland, Rassie Erasmus and Jamie Joseph all had plans to peak for the 2019 World Cup and they were rewarded, "

                     

Jan 15, 2023, 13:21

The above did not deal with a crucial loss by Ireland against Japan - which resulted in them being second in their pool ending up playing the AB's in the quarters and not SA.   At the start of the WC in 2019 was the number 1 ranked team in the world.   So why did they not do better?

The answer could be that Ireland away from home does not perform well enough and they are in fact poor travelers.   The other part is some of their aging players are not performing well enoughin crucial matches.     The other part as to Ireland is probably contained in the following:-

Eddie Jones, Warren Gatland, Rassie Erasmus and Jamie Joseph all had plans to peak for the 2019 World Cup and they were rewarded, "

                     

Jan 15, 2023, 13:57

To win the World Cup a side needs a brilliant fly-half and a brilliant lock,both firing injury free.


A good team and all the other ingredients are important.

87 NZ - Whetton, Fox
91 Aussie- Eales, Lynagh
95 SA - Wiese, Stransky
99 Aussie - Larkham, Eales
03 Eng -  Johnson, Wilkinson
07 SA. -  James, Matfield
11 NZ - Cruden, Whitelock,Barnes
15NZ -  Carter, Whitelock
19 SA - Pollard, Etzebeth

Of course a good scrumie such as Fourie du Preez in 2007 complimented James and Bakkies with Matfield
Without these two outstanding player positions I don't see Ireland rising above the rest. 

Jan 15, 2023, 14:02

Pollard was quite shackled in 2019. In the end, we won the World Cup because of the heroics of Louw in the SF, and then Mostert and Beast in the final. Frans played a vital role too with two try saving stops, mopping up after the trademark Damian turnstyle defence. However, you are correct in how important a good lock is. The good sides have at least one good lock, the great ones have elite lock pairings. In 2007 we had some good depth, with Rossouw, Muller and van den Berg providing some good depth. The Boks traditional build play off of 9 though, so the role of the 10 is usually a link man. If you watch the Boks, their 10 usually plays behind a screen and plays the ball well before the defensive line is near him. In 2007, the wall of Butch, Frans and Fourie was feared. Teams didn't like to play too wide, and we had Habana and JP shoring up the outside. Both highly adept under the high ball too. We ended up moving attackers back into the inner channels where our forwards feasted on them. That was a brutal era of Bok rugby. 

Jan 15, 2023, 14:15

Well up till 2003, the results that reflect Ireland where simply not as good as other teams.

2011 was abit of a choke alright, Wales in fairness played very well that game though, 2015 was abit of a choke as well but more down to a lack of a depth while 2019 Ireland had peaked the year before but Irelands form in 2019 6 Nations was awful with the manner of Englands win that year really damaging Ireland confidence and the the World Cup was a continuation of that poor form. We where never going to beat any of the big teams that year.

Jan 16, 2023, 01:53

2007 was a choke too. Ireland were among the favourites with France and New Zealand. The Irish clearly haven't really given a good account of what they are capable of. 

Jan 16, 2023, 02:43

The Proteas of the rugby world. Let’s hope they don’t discover their mojo in Paris.

Jan 16, 2023, 02:52

There’s been occasions when they were just not quite good enough and others when they simply seemed to lack belief in themselves. 

This year ? Well, that remains to be seen. 

Jan 16, 2023, 08:10

Never watched the 1991 World Cup but Ireland had the top points scorer in Ralph Keyes.

I would have to include top fullback and top prop for  as you mentioned Beast in last World Cup. Montgomery scored most points in 2007 at FB and Burke in 1999 at FB


 
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