Rugby World Cup. Ireland needs to learn the lesson.

Who predicted New Zealand’s defeat of Australia in the final of the Rugby World Cup?

Well, all right then. Everyone did.  Bookies weren’t even taking bets any more. I met a man today who told me he had €50 on New Zealand winning by six or more points and yet the Aussies kept us guessing almost to the end.  After scoring 14 points during an New Zealand sin-binning, they came within three points of equalising and some would argue that if they hadn’t fluffed an obvious try opportunity they might have nudged themselves into the lead. But in truth, as the ultimate victors took control of the game in its dying minutes and throttled the life out of the Australian challenge, everyone took to their feet to cheer the extraordinary style of the New Zealanders.

They were just better.

They were better in the planning, in the preparation and in the execution.

They were faster, stronger and more skilful than everyone else.

New Zealand left us Irish churning in our stew of hubris as we reflected on the misguided notion that we might ever challenge their supremacy in 2015. I suspect we might not feel confident to challenge them in 2019 or 2023 for that matter unless we conduct a fundamental re-think of how we play the international game of rugby, not only in Ireland but in the entire northern hemisphere.

How does it come about that the top-class leagues of England and France and the elite European Cup are unable to produce a single international squad capable of reaching the semi-finals of the rugby world cup?

We should be grateful to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina for reminding us that we are now in the second tier of world rugby. We should learn the lesson of Argentina who moved from the pedestrian European model to the expansive, creative, athletic southern hemisphere way of doing things and in the process, effortlessly brushed aside the Irish team, even if that team was admittedly robbed of talent and leadership by its bruising encounter with France the previous week.

It’s not enough. Excuses aren’t good enough.

We failed to beat Argentina because they were better than us and that’s all there is to it.

Ireland, France and Wales failed to progress because they simply couldn’t do it. Drawing a gentle veil across the England performance, only Scotland can have a genuine sense of grievance for referee Craig Joubert’s appalling decision to award Australia a penalty in the final minute of the game, but even then, reality has to intrude. If Scotland had really made it to the semi-final, they’d have been minced up and spat out by Argentina.

We can’t begrudge New Zealand their victory. Every one of them deserves credit, starting with the much-reviled Richie McCaw who has done nothing more than every self-respecting open-side ever did in the history of the game, operating on the fringes of legality, testing the referee’s abilities and leading his team with commitment and pride.

Who are we in Munster to judge? Our own Alan Quinlan fulfilled exactly the same role for years and we treated him as a hero with a nudge and a wink every time he bent the rules.

Let’s raise a glass to Richie, the best of the best, and another glass to Dan Carter, probably only equalled by Jonny Wilkinson in the out-half hall of fame. Let’s hail Ma’a Nonu, that mad heroic bastard and Sonny Bill, the gentle, religious, heavyweight boxing champion.

They’re legends, these guys, every one of them and we should point them out to our children, as our fathers pointed such heroes out to us.

But at the same time, we should be looking at them and asking, How can we be like them?

New Zealand has a population almost exactly the same size as Ireland’s, though it’s true we don’t have as many Maoris, which is undoubtedly a drawback. And it’s also true that, unlike New Zealand, we play many more sports, thereby reducing the pool of players, but still. It seems to be about more than numbers.

Judging by the New Zealand performance in this rugby world cup, it seems to be about attitude.

And let’s be honest, wouldn’t the world much prefer a Riverdance to a Haka?


Argentina 43 – Ireland 20

Argentina 43 – Ireland 20.

Oh God.  Do you even want to look at that scoreline? It’s harder than watching Dave Kearney’s dislocated finger being pulled back into shape. Aargh!

We got hammered and there’s no escaping it. We got trounced.  Argentina played us off the park, and all we can do is wish them well. They were fast, skilful and creative. They were better than us and that’s an end of it, or almost an end, provided we ask certain hard questions.

What went wrong for us?

Probably a combination of things. We were without our four best players in Paul O Connell, Peter O Mahony, Jonny Sexton and Sean O Brien. On top of that, we lost Tommy Bowe to injury after 12 minutes.  In losing O Connell, we didn’t just shed a great second-row, but also a leader who reads the game, organises the players, allocates resources where they’re needed and sets priorities. This is not the sort of contribution we see on the ball or on the television, but that’s how important Paul O Connell is to Ireland.  We lost a field marshal.

As if that wasn’t enough, in Peter O Mahony we lost a fighting general, a man willing to throw himself into the battle with no thought for his own safety while leading his men at the same time.

And of course in Jonny Sexton we lost our tactician, the man who, by an intervention here or there, decides the shape of the battle and ultimately its outcome.

In Seán O Brien, we lost the ultimate foot-soldier through his own indiscipline against France, but still the sort of hand-to-hand fighter we needed to win this war of attrition.

People will say that we lay down under the Argentinean onslaught but of course that’s untrue. Certainly in the first half hour, it looked as though they were going to destroy us but gradually Ireland fought their way back into the game and by the time we reached the final ten minutes, the struggle could have gone either way.

Did Joe Schmidt use his bench to best effect? I don’t know, but I’m at a loss to understand why he didn’t use Simon Zebo as a means of prising open the Argentinean defence.

For me, the decisive moment came when referee Jerome Garces cut off his television official in mid-sentence, choosing to ignore the second half of the advice he was receiving. It happened when tighthead Ramiro Herrera was in danger of receiving a second yellow card for charging. The question to the judge was whether Herrera had used his hands in attacking the ruck, and the TMO’s response was nuanced — He used his left arm going into the ruck but he used —

At that point, Garces cut him off, deciding not to award a second yellow card and therefore a sending-off.

I think that if Garces had allowed his TMO to continue explaining what he saw on the video, he would have been told that Herrera had charged an Irish player for a second time and he would have had no option but to give the prop a red card. It seems to me that Garces did not want to be faced with that possibility and therefore took the easy option. That’s just my opinion, but I think the decision decided the outcome of the match at a time when Ireland were beginning to impose themselves on the opposition.

Naturally, of course, we can’t begrudge the Argentineans their win, especially with their extraordinary running around the outside. Buffalo Gals rugby if ever we saw it, but at the same time, rugby is a game of rules and today, the referee didn’t necessarily follow them as he should have.

Were they better than us? Certainly.

Does that make them worthy winners? Only if they won legally.

Did they win legally? I think the referee made some crucially-important mistakes.

That’s all. They showed the sort of flair, panache and élan that the French could only dream of in their most extravagantly Gallic days of inspiration and what’s more they demonstrated a new Southern-hemisphere insouciance, a lack of fear, the sort of casual confidence that might allow them to trample over any opposition.

Could Ireland have beaten Argentina if they had their full complement of players? I don’t know. Argentina have grown into a serious rugby power and for all we know, they could go on to win this Rugby World Cup  though one suspects not. After their demolition of France, New Zealand look like the team that has it all.

But still, Ireland lost to a worthy victor. Northern hemisphere countries have a bit of thinking to do.





Ireland’s mediocre performance against Italy only a trick to put France off guard

Now look, said Joe Schmidt, get out there and play the crappiest rugby you can. Just don’t lose the game, all right?

The Irish squad shuffled awkwardly as the coach’s instructions rang in their ears. They knew he was right, but they didn’t have to like it.

Show nothing out there, Schmidt went on. I don’t want Novès finding out anything about us and I sure as hell don’t want Hansen to know what we have. So get out there and win ugly. Make plenty of mistakes, lots of handling errors  and let’s have a bit of indiscipline.

The coach grinned. Ok guys? Any questions?

There was a long, uncomfortable silence in the Ireland dressing room. Far above, the players knew, an expectant Irish crowd would be gathering in the Olympic Stadium, eager to see a thorough thrashing of the Italian upstarts.

Coach? It was the captain, Paul O’Connell.

Yeah, Paulie. What is it?

Coach, can we have one moment of brilliance?

Schmidt thought for a moment. Sure. Why not? Earlsy, Robbie, I want you to pair up and engineer a world-class try, as good as anything New Zealand could pull off. But only one, got it?

Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw glanced at each other and high-fived.

One, I said, boys. Just one, to send out a message.

Ok boss, Just one.

Peter, the coach turned to the Number 6. I want you to pull off one brilliant try-saving tackle.

O’Mahony grunted. Count on me, boss.

And Peter?

Yeah boss?

I want you to do the moment of silly indiscipline too.

What, boss? Me?

Yeah, you. I want you to shoulder-charge someone and get binned with ten minutes to go.

The flanker shook his head ruefully but said nothing.

Right, said Schmidt brightly. That’s about it, guys. Get out there and play like shit. We’ll keep the Frogs and the Kiwis guessing. Just remember to win.


Also on BTR:

Ireland 24 — France 9



Japan 34 – South Africa 32

Did I ever think I’d find myself shouting GO ON JAPAN?

No.  That’s not something that ever crossed my contemplation. That’s not a thought I had as recently as this morning when I rose from my bed to bathe in my customary flower-scented waters before donning my kimono for a hard day’s work of origami and bonsai.

Even as I consumed my sushi breakfast it didn’t occur to me that the Japanese rugby team might somehow defeat the South Africans, and that’s why I didn’t let the thought take over my entire day. As a matter of fact, I thought so little of it that I watched Ireland’s demolition of Canada with certain misgivings and then went home, planning only to follow the France – Italy match later on, but what happened instead?

Simple. A team of underdogs, a bunch of actually small men, put it up to giants of world rugby, both literally and figuratively, took them on as equals, outplayed them and finally defeated them, to the great delight of the entire rugby-watching world.

This was no fluke. The Japanese matched the South Africans score for score and play for play, shadowing them all the way to 32-29, a three-point game. The Japanese were just as good as the South Africans at every point of play, much to the horror of the Antipodean supermen, but then, to pile insult on anxiety, they worked the dying minutes of the game to nail the result at 34-32.

South Africa have never lost to a Tier 2 team while Japan have only ever won a single match in the Rugby World Cup.

Which of these things is more satisfying for Japan and more infuriating for South Africa?  You decide, but for the rest of the world, it seems that schadenfreude is the order of the day as rugby supporters everywhere cheer the unlikely victory.

I don’t know about you, but I found myself laughing like a madman as Japan ran over their winning try. And the more the camera dwelled on the disbelieving South African players sitting on the ground, the harder I chuckled.


Who knows?

The Japanese seem an unlikely crowd to be shouting for, given their famed attitude to us Gaijin, so maybe it comes down to the rest of the world simply not liking South Africans, for reasons we can only surmise.

Who wouldn’t love a South African, after all?   Their legendary friendliness, humility and modesty all make them prime candidates for Most Loved Nationality, and yet they never seem to win the trophy.

Hard to understand why, but that’s people for you.



Ireland 36 – Italy 6

After an impressive rally against Italy in the second half, Ireland guaranteed themselves a quarter-final place, but it took a fair amount of grinding before they finally started to get on top.  Selecting O Gara and Murray was the right decision, but it took a while before Ireland got into the rhythm and started releasing the big ball carriers like Ferris and O Brien.  BOD finally nailed it with a try in the 47th minute after a great run and offload from Tommy Bowe.  Keith Earls celebrated his 24th birthday with two great tries but Bowe was denied a perfectly legal try and an obvious penalty try in the final minutes.  In the end, Ireland outclassed Italy in every department, and even though it was a physical, even dirty, performance by Italy, there weren’t any serious injuries.   Paul O Connell was withdrawn as a precaution to save his niggling hamstring and Best took a bang on the collarbone, but other than that, all seems well.   [Update.  I spoke too soon.  It looks like Best might have a broken collarbone.]

The line-up of the final eight is interesting.

Ireland meet Wales, probably the toughest of the Six Nations teams, and the winner of that will meet whichever side comes out of the England-France encounter.  I have to say, neither of those teams has been particularly impressive.   France lost to Tonga yesterday and England were lucky to scrape past Scotland.

On the other side of the draw, Australia meet South Africa while New Zealand come up against Argentina.  Now that their talisman Dan Carter has been ruled out of the competition after a bad groin injury, the All Blacks are in disarray, which is a bit strange in many ways.  You’d imagine that the supposedly best team in the world wouldn’t be so dependent on one player, even if that man is himself arguably the most complete player in the world.  One way or another, New Zealand should come out the winner, but they’ll be bruised and battered after a full-on clash with Argentina.  Likewise, whoever gets out of the other southern hemisphere match will be thoroughly softened up.

So how does that work out?

Well, in theory, if we beat Wales, we could meet either France or England in the semi-final..  On current form, neither is a terrifying prospect.  Therefore, we could, conceivably find ourselves in the final, against either New Zealand, Australia, Argentina or South Africa.  I’ll stick my neck out and predict an Australia-New Zealand semi-final, with Australia winning.

I know it’s a big leap to imagine Ireland in the RWC final, but we’re now two games away from that position.  We could be playing Australia for the second time in this tournament.



Ireland 15 — Australia 6

Well, wasn’t that some change in a week?  I’m delighted to admit that my prediction was completely wrong and, that instead of being stuffed, Ireland wrapped Australia up and defeated them honestly in a game dominated by the forwards both in attack and defence.