The Future Of Irish Rugby

Forget The Noise – Irish Rugby Is In A Better Place Than Ever Before

As the dust settles on another heartbreaking Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final exit for Ireland let’s take a look at what that loss to the All Blacks means to Irish Rugby and where we go from here.

Don’t Tar This Ireland Team With The Same Brush As Previous Squads

Irish Performance In New Zealand Loss

First things first, let’s not shy away from the fact that this Ireland squad will be disappointed with many aspects of their performance in the Quarter-Final loss to New Zealand.

They played below the high standards that they’ve set for themselves over the last 18 months. Standards which saw them win a Grand Slam, win a tour against the All Blacks in New Zealand for the first time ever and rise to number one in the Rugby World Rankings.

Costly Ireland Mistakes

This Irish team will be kicking themselves for some of the uncharacteristic mistakes they made which ultimately cost them the game.

Johnny Sexton missed a kick in the second half that would have pulled the deficit back to 5 points. That’s a kick that Sexton would expect to make.

They also lost a scrum in the second half when New Zealand only committed 7 players against Ireland’s 8. That was a massive momentum swing and can’t happen at this level of rugby.

Sticking with the scrum, Andrew Porter had a bad day at the office where he conceded three penalties in the scrum. Referee Wayne Barnes did not like the picture Porter was showing him and if that’s the case then the onus is on Porter to change that picture to the referee’s liking or else it’s going to cost your team.

There were more set play issues at lineout time. Ireland’s lineout malfunctioned when they needed it most. Losing two lineouts is so uncharacteristic of Ireland. This has been arguably the best team in the world at capitalising on set plays since the Joe Schmidt era began in 2013

I could go on but the point is clear, this Irish team played well below the level they are capable of against the All Blacks.

The Finest Of Margins

Despite all these mistakes Ireland still came agonisingly close to a first-ever Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final win. 

With 46 minutes on the clock, Mack Hansen kicked a lovely cross-field ball to Dan Sheehan with the try line at his mercy. Unfortunately from an Irish point of view, the ball bounced centimetres too high for Sheehan’s outstretched hands. Quite literally the bounce of a ball made all the difference.

Then there was of course the maul lineout late in the second half where Ireland powered over the line only to be held up by an incredible defensive play from Jordie Barrett. If the ball is handed to Conor Murray in the maul then he walks over the try line and we’re probably sitting here in a week’s time talking about preparing for a Rugby World Cup Final against South Africa.

These games are decided by the finest of margins and had the bounce of a ball gone Ireland’s way the media narrative and conversation would sound very different right now.

The Resilience Of This Ireland Team

Nothing summed up this Ireland team better than the final moments of this game.

Despite some tough luck, unforced errors and All Blacks’ brilliance, this Ireland team did not go gentle into that good night. Instead, they composed themselves for one last throw of the dice when Jimmy O’Brien claimed a box kick just outside the Irish ‘22 with 77 minutes on the clock. Ireland proceeded to claw their way down the field in a 37-phase attack that was exhausting to watch and never mind execute. The Irish were a little more than 10 metres shy of the New Zealand try line when the All Blacks finally thwarted the attack which secured them victory.

Ireland Head Coach Andy Farrell talked after the game about not letting this loss define this Irish team. He’s right, the character shown in that last-ditch 37-phase attack is what defines this squad of Irish players.

The Cruel Nature of Cup Rugby

This Ireland team is the best team in the world and they proved that over the last two years by winning a tour in New Zealand and securing a Six Nations Grand Slam earlier this spring.

The fact of the matter is that the best team doesn’t always win the Rugby World Cup. That’s the nature of cup competitions, the best teams don’t always win. That’s why it’s called the Rugby World Cup and not ‘The Best Team In International Rugby Cup’.

New Zealand deserved to win that Quarter-Final. There should be no arguments or sour grapes about that. They were the better team on the night and are now deservedly Rugby World Cup favourites after beating Ireland, who were the World Cup favourites going into the Quarter-Finals. And once again, deservedly so.

Ireland’s Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final Hoodoo

What is there to say about Ireland’s Rugby World Cup Quarter-Finals record that hasn’t been said before? That defeat to New Zealand makes Ireland 0/8 in Rugby World Cup Quarter-Finals. Irish Rugby’s Quarter-Final hoodoo has taken on a similar feel to that of Mayo GAA’s record in All-Ireland Finals. You’d be forgiven for believing both teams are battling against a curse or pre-written script.

The ‘choke’ jab has been thrown at Ireland rugby teams down through the years because of their performances in Rugby World Cup Quarter-Finals. And in the past, the term ‘choke’, while harsh, was hardly unfair. Irish teams have consistently underperformed in the Quarter-Finals of Rugby World Cups.

Ireland’s Record in Rugby World Cup Quarter-Finals

Below are the results from Ireland’s eight appearances in Rugby World Cup Quarter-Finals.

1987 | Australia 33-15 Ireland (18-point loss)

1991 | Australia 19-18 Ireland (1-point loss)

1995 | France 36-12 Ireland (24-point loss)

2003 | France 43-21 Ireland (22-point loss)

2011 | Wales 22-10 Ireland (12-point loss)

2015 | Argentina 43-20 Ireland (23-point loss)

2019 | New Zealand 46-14 Ireland (32-point loss)

2023 | New Zealand 28-24 Ireland (4-point loss)

Prior to the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Ireland had lost 6/7 Quarter-Final matches by 12+ points. Ireland’s average losing margin in those 7 Quarter-Finals was 18.9 points.

You can’t defend that record. It’s inexcusable to underperform by that much over a period of 30+ years.

Let’s not tar this 2023 Ireland team with the same brush, however. Yes, they did lose in the Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final like previous Irish teams before them, but the nature of the defeat was completely different.

This team showed up and went toe-to-toe with the All Blacks for 80+ minutes. I’m not one for moral victories but this is an Irish team that the Island of Ireland can be proud of, unlike previous squads that didn’t do themselves justice once they got to the knockout stages.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that the 2023 Quarter-Final against New Zealand was a de facto Semi-Final. The ridiculous nature of the Rugby World Cup draw meant that the four best teams in the world, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand and France, were on the same side of the draw.

In the history books, it will go down as another Quarter-Final exit. However, the reality is that Ireland v New Zealand and France v South Africa were the real Semi-Finals in the 2023 Rugby World Cup, even if they were played at the Quarter-Final stage.

Ireland’s Rugby World Cup Performances Trending In The Right Direction

Now for some positives relating to Ireland’s Rugby World Cup performances. If you care to hear them that is.

Ireland have only lost one pool game since their infamous pool stage exit at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. That loss came against Japan in 2019 when the Japanese were tournament hosts.

Irish pool stage wins in that time frame came against the likes of Australia (2011), France (2015), South Africa (2023) and twice against Scotland (2019 and 2023).

Prior to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Ireland’s win rate in World Cup pool games was just 65% (13 wins and 7 losses). From 2011 onwards Ireland have a win rate of 93.75% (15 wins and 1 loss) in World Cup pool games.

Ireland had never topped their pool at a Rugby World Cup before 2011. Since 2011 (inclusive) Ireland have topped their pool 3/4 times.

While Ireland’s newfound success in the Rugby World Cup pool stage has not yet translated to the knockout rounds, we have every reason to believe that Irish Rugby is in a better place than ever before.

Irish Rugby Success Pre and Post-2007 World Cup

Let’s take the 2007 Rugby World Cup pool stage exit as the landmark moment in Irish Rugby history and compare the success of Ireland in the 15 years leading up to and including the 2007 Rugby World Cup to the last 15 years since the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

So, how is success defined for the Ireland rugby team? It’s defined by results in the Rugby World Cup, Six Nations and Grand Slams, results against the top Southern Hemisphere sides, and results against England and France.

Irish Rugby Success 1991-2007

Rugby World Cup Win Rate: 52.4% (11 wins and 10 losses)

Top Spot In Rugby World Cup Pool: 0 times

Grand Slams: 0

Six Nations/ Five Nations Titles: 0

Record Against New Zealand: 0 wins and 10 losses

Record Against South Africa: 2 wins and 6 losses

Record Against Australia: 2 wins and 12 losses

Record Against England: 7 wins and 10 losses

Record Against France: 3 wins and 17 losses

20% win rate against top 5 rugby nations

Irish Rugby Success Post 2007 Rugby World Cup

Rugby World Cup Win Rate: 75% (15 wins and 5 losses)

Top Spot In Rugby World Cup Pool: 3 times

Grand Slams: 3

Six Nations Titles: 5

Record Against New Zealand: 5 wins and 12 losses

Record Against South Africa: 6 wins and 4 losses

Record Against Australia: 6 wins, 4 losses and 1 draw

Record Against England: 10 wins and 11 losses

Record Against France: 8 wins, 9 losses and 2 draws

46% win rate against top 5 rugby nations

By every objective measure that we judge the success of the Ireland rugby team, they have had exponentially more success in the last 15 years since the 2007 World Cup than they did in the 15 years leading up to 2007 and in the 2007 World Cup itself.

Grand Slams? Check. Six Nations? Check. Consistently finishing top spot in World Cup pools having never finished top spot previously? Check. Beating New Zealand for the first time ever? Check. Beating New Zealand in New Zealand for the first time ever? Check. A winning record against South Africa? Check. A winning record against Australia? Check. Better records against England and France? Check.

It’s tempting to be reductive after another heartbreaking Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final loss and say ‘Same old Ireland, nothing has changed’. However, that’s patently false. So much has changed in the last 15 years for Irish rugby. We are light years ahead of where we were before.

There used to be a massive gulf in quality between Ireland and the top 5 rugby nations in the world (New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England and France). Now? Ireland themselves are unquestionably one of the top 5 nations in world rugby.

That is not to say that advancing past the Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final should not be the North Star for Ireland teams. That should still remain the primary objective of every Irish team.

Grand Slams be damned, when Ireland win that first-ever Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final it will be the greatest win in the team’s history. However, to only measure the success of Irish Rugby by World Cup Quarter-Final results is reductive.

Based on performances and results over the last 15 years we have so much evidence to suggest that Irish Rugby is closer to breaking that Quarter-Final glass ceiling than ever.

A Bright Future For Irish Rugby

The IRFU youth system is churning out young talent like never before. Proof of that is the success of the Irish U20 teams who have won three Grand Slams in the last four U20 Six Nations along with reaching the U20 World Championship Final this year.

Forget all the naysayers, all the negativity and the ‘chokers’ jabs that have come following the Quarter-Final loss to the All Blacks.

In the moment it might feel like we’re a million miles away but the truth is that the future (and present) has never been brighter for Irish Rugby.

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