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Ireland's big lesson from 2019 they must heed this year

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images and (Photo by Richard Heathcote - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

No test playing nation came into the World Cup year in 2019 with as much exuberance and hope as Ireland, which was understandably justified.

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They had just completed one of the more incredible test seasons in memory in 2018: a Grand Slam Six Nations title to start the year, a 2-1 series victory over the Wallabies in Australia in June, and an undefeated November which concluded with a famous win over the All Blacks at home. Joe Schmidt was named World Rugby Coach of the Year.

Ireland were riding high with expectations firming of a successful World Cup campaign in Japan as the new year dawned. They had surpassed England with two consecutive wins in the last two Six Nations and knocked off New Zealand, the two leading teams at that point in the cycle.

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After reaching the peak of their powers, the World Cup couldn’t come round soon enough. Ireland were ready to get past the quarter-final stage and more beckoned.

The opening game of the Six Nations in February saw England visit Dublin where Ireland were heavy favourites. They had defeated the All Blacks at the same venue just four months earlier and England had fallen off the rails in 2018.

Within 90 seconds the air was sucked out of the Aviva Stadium as Jonny May scored the opening try in clinical fashion. In those first few minutes England looked sharp, powerful, and overall too strong.

It was very early in the Test but the signs were ominous. Ireland had been punched in the face and it was quite clear who was going to win the fight from that point on.

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That stunning 32-20 loss put Irish rugby in a state of flux, seemingly robbing them of their mojo. Everything began to fall apart and they harder they tried to recapture the magic the more things went wrong.

Sexton was hauled over the coals for his visible frustrations with his own players against Italy. They won, but the 26-16 scoreline was anything but impressive. It was clear they couldn’t get their game clicking and something was amiss.

The visit to Cardiff in the final round was the breaking point where the wheels began to fall off. Wales scored within two minutes, their only try of the game, but suffocated Joe Schmidt’s side into a 25-7 beating.

Confidence shattered, by the end of the Six Nations Ireland had gone from clear favourites to third best in Europe some distance behind England and Wales, which was confirmed in the late summer.

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In the summer warm-ups, Ireland suffered a humiliating 57-15 defeat at the hands of England on a sunny Twickenham afternoon. From peak optimism in January, despondency was rife in August.

By the time the World Cup rolled around Ireland were a shell of the side that stormed through 2018. They suffered a shock defeat in pool play to hosts Japan and ended up drawing the All Blacks in a quarter-final and were torn to pieces.

The unravelling of Ireland in 2019 was bizarre and there is no logical explanation for the dramatic fall from the outside. They had the players, the form heading into the year and momentum. Sexton, who received a World Player of the Year nomination in 2022, was a full three years younger than he is now.

It seemed to be all mental combined with taking a ‘waiting’ approach. As Ireland powered through their 2018 season culminating in defeat of the All Blacks, expectations, hopes and dreams all climbed in exponential fashion, creating a new pressure to live with that proved fatal.

Once they got to the top, they didn’t know what to do next other than look too far ahead to the World Cup, the next obvious frontier, instead of the next task in front of them.

Schmidt admitted that they changed the way they handled the Six Nations that year in order to ‘be really good at the World Cup’ but ended up bombing out at both tournaments.

The changed a successful system of preparation in order to test an unproven method, and once they dived into a funk could not get out of it.

In 2023, Ireland need to forget about the World Cup. It will arrive in due time, it’s not going anywhere. The quarter-final hurdle that holds such esteem in Irish rugby has become too sacrosanct. This pedestal has to be mentally abolished, don’t even bother talking about it.

This time around Ireland are in a different position, which might help save themselves from the mistakes of 2019.

Despite climbing Everest with a series win in New Zealand over the All Blacks in 2022 to highlight their credentials, France are still the frontrunners in Europe and offer Ireland a reprieve from the pressure of leading the pack and any complacency associated with it.

Ireland might be the number one ranked side but they have not conquered France in this World Cup cycle, losing in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

France offer a target to hunt with added motivation: Ireland have not tasted success in the Six Nations since their last title in 2018 under Schmidt, which should have Andy Farrell’s side hungrier than ever for.

His message should be along the lines of don’t waste the chance to win the Six Nations by expending even a second of thought on what will happen later in the year. The two are completely unrelated outcomes but equally important.

France are almost exactly where Ireland were in 2018, coming off a Grand Slam and a historic winning season. If any team is going to drop the ball this Six Nations, it is them, with one eye already on hosting the World Cup.

Midi Olympique, the French rugby newspaper reported that the public are ‘tired of waiting’ to win the World Cup after losing three finals in their history, desperate to play the tournament now in peak form like Ireland in the last cycle.

They have already begun to sandbag, playing a reduced version of their game in November and weren’t overly impressive. If France are already in waiting mode, they are in for a shock.

Ireland have the chance to ambush them in Dublin in round two and create the first crack in the dam. Then the ball of string might unravel, as it did for Ireland four years ago. The World Cup is not won in February or March, but key momentum can be lost or gained.

Ireland should have full focus on week one against Wales in Cardiff and nothing else but regard for the Six Nations.

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