By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — After all the hype and all the expectation, Ireland’s Rugby World Cup hopes died a miserable death last week when they were knocked out at the quarterfinal playoff stage by Argentina.
The abysmal 28-24 defeat last Wednesday in Lens, France, was an all-time low for the international team. Argentina have shown themselves to be a useful side in this tournament, but this was still a game the Irish were easily capable of winning.
In the three previous World Cups, Ireland has always reached the quarterfinals. Not even during some of the dark days of the 1990s has the team dropped out of the world’s top eight. But if the rankings were made today, the Irish would be dumped out of the top 10 behind Argentina, Samoa and Fiji.
And not so long ago, this country’s rugby authorities had the arrogance not to award full caps when Ireland played against the likes of Argentina, Samoa and Fiji, simply because they didn’t believe the opposition were up to the necessary standard.
England, Scotland, Wales and France all made the quarterfinals of the tournament, but Ireland, once regarded as one of Europe’s traditional powerbrokers, has finished its campaign in total humiliation.
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For some bizarre reason, the pool victories over the USA and Romania had been talked up as important achievements, whereas the pathetic performance against Australia was glossed over. Some of the players showboated in the Romania game, celebrating their tries as if they had won the World Cup itself.
Right now, all that professionalism has brought to Ireland is a sickening mixture of mediocrity and vanity.
More galling than anything was the fact that Ireland had the game under control for more than an hour. With David Humphreys kicking immaculately, the Irish led by 21-9 at one stage. However, once Argentina began to chase the game, they looked by far the more positive and skillful team.
As the pressure intensified and the Pumas clawed their way back into the contest, you would have expected some moral courage, attitude and self-belief from Ireland’s elite players. Instead, the only signs coming from the pitch were ones of sheer panic.
Argentina scored a superbly worked try to take the lead for the first time, but the Irish response was several desperate mindless attacks on their opponents’ line.
"We feel we can match Argentina and dominate them up front," was coach Warren Gatland’s considered opinion before the fateful game.
Ireland’s confidence turned out to be so shockingly misplaced, it was laughable. At the moment, the IRFU has nearly 100 full-time professional players on its books. Argentina has five. On that basis alone, the result was a disgrace.
Coach Gatland’s aim was to win two games during the last Five Nations championship, but his team failed, finishing last yet again. The stated aim this month was to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup at least — the players in fact publicly targeted the semifinals — and again, all the rugby public is left to contemplate is more failure.
In Gatland’s 20 games in charge, the only team of note he has beaten is Wales. Clearly, he has surrounded himself by a mediocre group of players who have shown themselves to by psychological weaklings, but results are the bottom line, and now the coach could lose his job.
By the time the Ireland squad had arrived back from France, the IRFU had already announced it was seeking a meeting with Gatland and team manager Donal Lenihan. One senior figure spoke of the result as a "disaster" and "unacceptable". Gatland has a contract that runs until next April, but he is in danger of becoming a lame duck coach.
Irrespective of what happens to Gatland, several of the players will be thrown on the scrapheap. Conor O’Shea, Eric Elwood, Paddy Johns and Peter Clohessy may be finished, while the search for new, young talent will no doubt begin in earnest.
After so many disappointments in recent years, we thought Irish rugby couldn’t get any worse. It has and now, no one believes in the international team. They have become the latest Irish joke.