The Rugby World Cup End Game: New Zealand 28, Ireland 24…

A million words have been written about this match and my policy as a blogger is never to repeat any of them: Unless you have something original to say, the best policy is to say nothing. And the truth is: there is not much left to say. As expected, the match was a tight 50:50 contest which could have gone either way, but Ireland simply left themselves with too much to do when they went 13-0 down early on.

Once again Ireland’s line-out let us down, so too, unexpectedly, did the scrum. Andrew Porter was anything but happy with the referee’s interpretation of events, but there is little enough point in complaining about that now. In the end, the difference between the two teams was possibly psychological: New Zealand had the ruthlessness of a country that had won three World Cups and virtually every quarter final it had ever played, whereas Ireland have won none.

Ireland started in hope, whereas New Zealand were ruthless from first to last, scoring with virtually every opportunity, and some which barely existed at all. They say “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy”, and “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. To succeed where no Ireland team have succeeded before, they had to make the up step to championship level and rise above the game plan and ride the waves of chaos. New Zealand simply started the stronger, playing the referee and the occasion slightly better.

Any number of small things could have changed the result in our favour, and then the post-match narrative would have been very different. But the reality is that the result changed very little. Ireland are still one of the four best teams in the world. Ireland beat South Africa. South Africa beat France. France beat New Zealand, and New Zealand beat Ireland. On their day, any one of these teams could have won the World Cup.

This is not about excuses, but the cruel draw ultimately did for Ireland. The matches against Romania and Tonga were essentially warm up matches and no squad rotation was possible after that. Ireland had the most players of any nation who had played in every match – 8 played at least 240 minutes of the pool stages – and Bundee Aki and Hugo Keenan were the only quarterfinalists to have played every minute of every match. New Zealand hadn’t had a tough match since the opening night.

It was a staggering achievement for Jonny Sexton to play the full 80 minutes, and for Jimmy O’Brien to come on and play so well having not had a single minute of World Cup experience. No one in the Irish team let us down, although I was disappointed the line-out gap wasn’t refereed more strictly and our front row couldn’t achieve greater dominance in the scrums. People will argue that Richie Mo’unga should have seen yellow for launching his shoulder into Bundee Aki’s face, but it was a marginal call.

Ultimately it was the failure to convert the second dominant maul into a try that cost Ireland, with Jordie Barrett miraculously preventing Ronan Kelleher from touching down over the line. Ireland ended the match the stronger, with a 37 phase attack unable to breach the New Zealand line. It is a tribute to this great Ireland team that they stayed in the fight, but we have to give New Zealand credit for some outstanding tackling in defence. On another day we would have won it at the death.

And so the dream is over, but the beauty of this Irish team is that they allowed us to dream. For quite a while we were the best team in the world, with 17 consecutive victories against all and sundry. But on Saturday we were beaten by the better team on the day, and there is no shame in having to admit that.

Irish rugby will now have to move on. Jonny Sexton and Keith Earls are set to retire and who knows how long others like Herring, Healy, Kilcoyne, O’Mahony, Murray, and Aki will be able to continue at the top level. Others are set to take their places: Players currently on the fringes will move centre stage. Players like McCarthy, Baird, O’Brien and Casey in the current squad, and Sam and Cian Prendergast, Jamie Osborne and countless others on the fringes.

The provinces have been going well, and the Irish u.20’s are back to back grand slam champions and junior World Cup finalists. The conveyor belt of talent is broadening all the time. We probably won’t have more Kiwi’s like Lowe, Gibson Park, and Aki or Aussie’s like Hansen to help us in four years’ time, but our indigenous talent base is improving all the time. Next up it’s the 6 Nations, with away matches in Twickenham and Marseille. Who can recover best from this World Cup? I would remain confident that Ireland can stay in the top four teams in the world.

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