This was supposed to be the team which would reach the semi-finals of the one tournament in the world game on which players and coaches are truly judged. What’s more, the captain, Brian O’Driscoll, and the squad’s spiritual leader, Paul O’Connell, had talked in advance about actually winning the thing.
In fairness to this group which had raised rugby’s profile over the past three or four years with some searing performances, there was widespread expectation off the pitch that Ireland would make their mark in a big way. Sadly, we were all deluding ourselves.
And just a few days after the team failed to even reach the knockout stages having been taught a humbling lesson in common sense tactics by Argentina in Paris, we were really still no wiser as to how a talented and massively-funded squad turned so quickly into a disorganized, hopeless rabble.
Could it have been that these leaden-footed players were over-trained? Could it have been that too many were so sure of their places in the starting line-up that they spent the weeks before the tournament in a comfort zone? Could the refusal of coach Eddie O’Sullivan to rotate his players – nine out of a total of 30 were given almost no game time – have caused ill-feeling in the camp? Why was the playmaker, Ronan O’Gara, so disastrously out of form? And where was there a touch of un-Irish hubris about the whole organization?
The answers may never come out as O’Sullivan’s employers, the IRFU, prepare to conduct a review of what has been nothing short of a monumental flop. Before he led his players to France, the coach had put pen to paper on a four-year extension to his contract. The presumption is that the IRFU wanted their man to continue in the job come hell or high water.
But then, they could never have predicted hell and high water in France were Ireland were widely regarded as contenders.
From the moment the Irish stumbled past Namibia in the first game, via a near humiliation at the hands of Georgia, to numbing defeats by both France and Argentina, this tournament has been a litany of mistakes and wrong options by the players, and much hand-wringing by the management.
How could so many players of the calibre of O’Connell, O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Horgan, Peter Stringer, Donncha O’Callaghan, David Wallace, Denis Leamy and Simon Easterby perform so poorly? Coincidence? Hardly.
In the end, only O’Driscoll emerged with any credit as he alone over the four soul-destroying matches offered any serious threat to opposing defenses, but in the bitter aftermath of last Sunday’s mauling, the captain wasn’t about to blame his coach.
“A lot of the onus has to go on the players,” he said. “There’s only so much coaching that can be done.” However, the moment Wales squandered their chance of a place in the quarter-finals by losing to Fiji, their coach, Gareth Jenkins, was summarily dismissed.
Yet, there was silence on the part of the IRFU regarding O’Sullivan’s position. Regarded by his supporters as a shrewd, knowledgable, hard-working, attention-to-detail kind of guy, and by his detractors as a notoriously conservative, cold-hearted, control freak, the coach will almost certainly continue at the very least until the end of next year’s Six Nations championship.
In the meantime, he might be ordered to shuffle his backroom staff by bringing in one or two new assistant coaches, but in the short to medium term, O’Sullivan is likely to survive the many calls for his head.
“I’m totally committed to the job,” he explained defiantly. “This has been a tough World Cup, I’ll admit that, and things haven’t gone to plan, but that’s no reason to walk away. I’ve never walked away from a challenge in my life, and I’m not about to start now.”
Whether some of the players survive an impending cull is another question. While Denis Hickie decided in his wisdom to announce last month that he would be retiring from all rugby immediately after the tournament, others such as John Hayes, Girvan Dempsey and Easterby might have played their last international games as O’Sullivan attempts to infuse some new blood with a view to the future.
After what had gone before, last Sunday was probably an accident waiting to happen. The Irish went in to the game needing to win by a margin of at least eight points, and needing to score four tries into the bargain in order to avoid the ignominy of an early flight home. As most of the recent contests against Argentina had been closely-fought affairs, there was some hope, but no genuine expectation.
With many of their players performing week-in-week-out in the higher echelons of French club rugby, with their backline architect, Felipe Contepomi, on the books alongside O’Driscoll and D’Arcy at Leinster, Argentina have developed into a formidable team over the past few years.
Streetwise and skilful, their win over France at the start of the tournament was a surprise, but certainly not a shock, and when they took the lead against Ireland with an early try at the Parc des Princes, you could sense the worst.
The Irish managed to respond with a try from the ever-dangerous O’Driscoll, but prompted by some superb tactical kicking by their out-half, Juan Hernandez, Argentina assumed control to lead 18-10 at the break.
There was a fleeting glimpse of Ireland’s potential when Geordan Murphy raced away for a second try; however, it was clear midway through the second half that the game, and the tournament, was up as Argentina pulled away to win comfortably and to book a quarter-final place against Scotland. “The basic fact is that we were not good enough, and now we’re going home,” said Murphy succinctly.
With lesser teams such as Fiji, Scotland and England through to the knockout stages, the pain and the confusion of this abject failure are now even greater. They were dubbed the “Golden Generation” of Irish rugby, but O’Sullivan and his players have now lost most of their sheen.