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Ireland's four-year 'improvement' was the All Blacks taking seven minutes longer than Argentina to go 17 early points up

By Liam Heagney
Ireland players - (left to right) Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony and Rob Kearney - look on from the bench after being replaced in Tokyo (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in Tokyo as the IRFU top brass said ‘Kanpai’ and called it a night after Ireland’s torrid dusting by the rampaging All Blacks.


They would have flown out en masse to Japan expecting to be there for the long haul, to see Ireland create World Cup history and Joe Schmidt endorse his credentials as their national team’s greatest ever coach. 

Instead, just like their ill-fated bid to host the 2023 World Cup, they will now slink back through airport departures with their race embarrassingly run early and the sound of withering laughter humiliatingly ringing in their ears follwing the sobering 14-46 defeat.

How did it come to this? When their all-powerful high-performance boss, David Nucifora, summoned the media to Aviva Stadium a few days before Christmas in 2015, he did so to admonish the previous regime. 

He’d only been a year and a half into the job at the time but he laid it on thick… the mistakes that had undermined the 2015 campaign were in his view the same sort of mistakes that had banjaxed the 2011 effort and so on. You get the drift. 

(Continue reading below…)


The bottom line, he insisted, was that there would be no repeat, yet here we are four years down the line sifting through the carcass of another brutally ended World Cup.

Saturday’s 32-point defeat was worse than any of the previous quarter-final drubbings. Worse than Sydney in 1987 (18 points). Worse than Durban in 1995 (24 points). Worse than Melbourne in 2003 (22 points). Worse than Wellington in 2011 (12 points). And worse than Cardiff in 2015 (23 points).

So much for the promised improvement? Instead, it appears the more things seemingly change in the Nucifora era, the more they stay the same – if not get even worse – when it comes to Ireland’s dubious World Cup history. 


The easy excuse will be to say Ireland ran into an All Blacks outfit at the top of its game, but there is no swallowing that. Ireland had beaten the world champions twice in the past three meetings, so this seven-tries-to-two defeat is simply unacceptable on every level when it’s known the ability to be competitive and win exists.   

Back to the ‘learning from mistakes’ gambit posited by Nucifora in 2015. If Ireland’s downfall four years ago was a terrible start where they found themselves 17 points down after just 15 minutes at the Millennium, you would have thought they would do everything possible to be switched on in the opening salvos in Tokyo, the same ground where even minnows Namibia managed to get a three-point jump on the All Blacks in the opening minutes 13 days earlier.

Not so. New Zealand instead had 17 unanswered points on the board by the 22nd minute in Japan, meaning Ireland’s ‘improvement’ from one World Cup quarter-final to the next was essentially a mere seven minutes, the All Blacks taking only slightly longer to do Schmidt’s side what Argentina had done in Cardiff.


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Peaked too soon? #NZLvIRE #irishrugby #irelandrugby #nzrugby #allblacks #rwc #rugbyworldcup

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This wasn’t a World Cup war that was all lost on one desperate night in Japan, though. Remember, this was supposed to have been a tournament where Ireland would gallivant into the quarter-finals as pool winners and pick off South Africa in the quarter-finals to achieve that elusive history of reaching a first-ever semi-final. 

That pool plan was clinically shredded three weeks ago, the hosts ambushing Ireland in Shizuoka and ripping up how the seedings were meant to work out for the quarter-finals.

Someone somewhere crashingly dropped the ball regarding Japan. Ireland had toured there for a fortnight in June 2017 to get a feel for the place but in beating Jamie Joseph’s side twice at the time, the potential for the hosts to grow and become a live threat was obviously overlooked given the manner how Ireland were ‘surprised’ by how good the Japanese became. 

That Ireland also began that hugely important match with Jack Carty starting at out-half for just the second time in his Test career blew another hole in the Nucifora ‘learning from your mistakes’ premise. 

Ian Madigan’s inexperience in stepping up for Johnny Sexton in the 2015 quarter-final was cited as a prime reason for failure, yet to arrive into a big game four years later with the same problem regarding cover for talisman Sexton highlighted how all eventualities were not properly mapped out by the powers that be in the interim years. The heavy cost inflicted was a loss that rerouted them to the quarter-final meeting with the All Blacks, not have an extra day to prepare as pool winners for a Sunday tussle with the Springboks. 

There have been other troubling forks in the road. Take the supposed squad depth: it took Ireland’s second string an hour to get the bonus point try against minnows Russia after their game plan appeared too laboured and lacking the energy which other top tier squads picked off tier two countries with at the finals. 


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New Zealand vs England your first semi-final. #RugbyWorldCup #NZLvsIRL

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Going back further, it was curious how the humiliating beating at Twickenham in August was readily dismissed on the pretence that Ireland had just done a week’s warm-weather training in Portugal and weren’t as rugby ready as eight-try England were. 

Just eight weeks later, here we are with the All Blacks running in seven tries, a ruinous leakage that must flag concerns about the reliability of the overall Andy Farrell approach – as happened in London, Ireland’s tackle completion dipped to 79 per cent (108/137) with Jacob Stockdale again among those left exposed

The defence coach – who has been rightly praised when things work out – is poised to now take over the whole shooting match from Schmidt on a contract nearly every bit as cushy as the last long-term IRFU deal handed out to an English head coach of the Ireland national team. 

It didn’t work out well for Brian Ashton way back when and there should now be a concern that it might not work out all that well either for Farrell where he takes up the reins.

Of course, he will have Six Nations, tour matches and all the rest to start figuring it all out but if Schmidt – statistically Ireland’s greatest ever coach – couldn’t shatter the World Cup glass ceiling in his two attempts, what chance Farrell succeeding when it is remembered his other finals experience was as part of England’s pool stage elimination four years ago?

For now, Nucifora’s latest World Cup post-mortem will be awaited with interest in the coming months. Especially as the buck on this occasion must stop at his desk after the recommendations from 2015 ultimately failed to deliver Ireland the promised land of that first World Cup semi-final appearance.  

WATCH: Rory Best and Joe Schmidt reflect on Ireland’s loss to the All Blacks in the World Cup quarter-finals

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