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The World Cup cycle does matter, despite what Irish fans think

By Daniel Gallan
A tearful Hugo Keenan of Ireland looks on after the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between Ireland and New Zealand at Stade de France on October 14, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

“There is nothing more intoxicating than victory.” So said Robert Greene, the American author of six international best-sellers exploring power, seduction and the laws of human nature. Triumph is a drug, the argument goes, one that shrouds logic and erases reason.

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Not convinced? Go on X and trawl through the self-satisfying messages of Irish rugby fans following their side’s 38-17 win over France in Marseille.

Amidst the standard gloating and schadenfreude typical amongst all sports fans, an odd bit of mental gymnastics played out in real-time. In the heady afterglow of a famous conquest, some supporters seemed hellbent on downplaying the Rugby World Cup.

The theory makes a degree of sense, if you squint your eyes and cock your head at the scene as if looking at a magic-eye poster. The Webb Ellis Cup is up for grabs once every four. The whole event lasts eight weeks. That means, over the course of what has been dubbed a ‘World Cup cycle’, a mere 3.8 per cent of the time available is actually filled with the tournament itself.

Eddie Jones is just one high-profile coach who has made the mistake of placing all his eggs in this narrow basket. While in charge of England, he dismissed poor results in the lead-up to 2023 as lessons to be learned. Don’t worry, he professed often and loudly, none of these disastrous performances will be remembered in the long run. After losing his seventh match from 13 played in 2022, Jones was sacked a year out from his target.

Momentum is real. Losing can become a habit. Winning can become a habit. Every Test match involving nations should matter regardless of the wider context. That’s all true, but there are clear hierarchies in any sport. A 100m sprint final in the Annual Darius Dixon Memorial Invitational is obviously not as important as the headline race at the Olympics. Denying this basic fact requires a degree of dishonesty plucked from an Orwellian fever dream.

So why the double-think? A cynic might argue that Irish fans are simply bitter after yet another quarter-final exit. That they are doing everything they can to convince themselves that the tournament they’ve never won, the tournament they really crave most of all, somehow carries less significance because they want it to be true.

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World Cup
Peter O’Mahony and Josh Van der Flier of Ireland look dejected at full-time after their team’s loss in the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between Ireland and New Zealand at Stade de France on October 14, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Andy Farrell, Ireland’s coach, swatted aside notions that this year’s Six Nations is the first step on a new journey. “I don’t buy into the four-year cycle that tends to come around when World Cups are finished,” he said. True to his word, he named 34-year-old Peter O’Mahony as his captain for the foreseeable future. But beyond that? If you can’t see the lands over the horizon then maybe they don’t exist.

Having masterminded the most cohesive attack in international rugby, Farrell doesn’t need an education on the sport from a columnist. But the above rhetoric feels misguided. Wouldn’t it help to at least have half an eye on the game’s top prize? Would it hurt so much to consider the World Cup as the pot of gold at the end of a four-year rainbow? Would even acknowledging this send his team into a blind panic?

The Springboks’ last three World Cup-winning coaches – Jake White, Rassie Erasmus and Jaques Nienaber – all made the World Cup their priority when taking on the job. It helps that they were leading a rugby nation with the firepower to match actions to words, but this clear intention helped clarify any decisions they made.

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Jacques Nienaber
Jacques Nienaber, the South Africa head coach looks on during a South Africa training session ahead of their Rugby World Cup France 2023 Final match against New Zealand at Stade des Fauvettes on October 25, 2023 in Domont, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Bryan Habana, winner of the 2007 edition, tells the story of White’s first promise that a team that had just spluttered at the 2003 edition, and had won half of their games for the previous four years, could somehow conquer the world. Habana and the rest of the team met White’s bullishness with incredulity. But they drank the Kool-Aid. Even when the side lost 49-0 in Brisbane, or 45-26 in fortress Pretoria to the All Blacks, the guiding light of that original promise kept them on course.

This is why Steve Borthwick’s England is one of the most exciting prospects in Europe, which is a staggering sentence to write. Eight of the match-day 23 named for the game against Wales this weekend have less than 10 caps. This feels like a project that is building. Building to what? Maybe a proper tilt at a World Cup. Borthwick has been conscious not to make any assurances or reference the golden trophy, but it’s clear he has a long-term vision in mind.

In truth, so does everyone. Even Farrell and Ireland. Like it or not, the World Cup matters more than anything else in rugby. It just does. A British & Irish Lions series is a close second, but that is because it is likewise a rare event. Yearly contests will never carry the same weight. Scarcity has a quality on its own.

So, rather than downplay the World Cup, Irish supporters might hold their team to a higher standard and demand an end product to their sustained excellence. One should always find joy in what is a remarkable team operating at the highest level, but ask yourself, Irish fans, how many grand slams and away wins in France would you trade for a single World Cup?

South Africa has won just one Rugby Championship since 2012. Before that they were the least successful team in the Tri-Nations, collecting the wooden spoon 10 times from 16 attempts. Apart from a rare dynastic Bulls side that claimed three Super Rugby crowns from 2007-10, only the Stormers in the URC have won a cross-continent club competition in almost three decades of professionalism.

And yet, despite this record, the Springboks are the most dominant men’s Test side with four World Cups. What’s more, not a single South African supporter would trade any of those crowns for any other title. Victory is an intoxicating drug. But some highs are better than others.

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Comments

21 Comments
k
kieran 134 days ago

despite issues with line outs and scrums Ireland was one of 4 teams that could have won it. Of the 4 teams Ireland and France were best placed. Despite apparently living the 4 year cycle approach, SA had to rely on illegal charge downs (Fance), very suspect forward passes in most matches to stay in competition by very narrow victories. Yes they won it and fair play but they did not dominant anything except the luck. They certainly put themselves in a position to take advantage of luck but think the 4 year approach was far from the reason they won and is often used to excuse poor performances for 96% of the cycle.

P
Paul 136 days ago

There is one glaringly obvious bit of detail missing from the analysis of Irelands failure at the 2023 RWC. Our linout failed miserably. It was ranked 14th out of 20. No way we could ever have won the tournament with that lineout.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered as much to other teams, but it did to Ireland. Evidence of this fact lies in our victory in Marseille. All 5 tries came directly from lineout starter plays. 2 of them were maul tries.

Andy Farrells Ireland have built an attack that rely's on a strong lineout as a cornerstone. Unfortunately, POC mislaid it in June or July and only found it again before Christmas!!

m
mjp89 136 days ago

South Africa didn't have a great four years before 2019 and won the World Cup.

Ireland and France conquered the world for four years before 2023 and went out in the QFs.

The World Cup cycle is a silly thing to think about.

M
Michael 136 days ago

Farrell dosen't want to see a dip occurring in the teams standards. It’s simply a psychology thing. And to put It behind them and to concentrate on the games in-between world cups. All the hype will return closer to the next tournament 2027.

B
Bob Marler 136 days ago

Also hear a lot about teams being inconsistent between world cups. I’d rather consistently peak and win the World Cup than consistently peak between and not.

X
Xabiso 136 days ago

Brilliant article, said what needed to be said and it will obviously get push back from certain fans.

The rugby world cup is the crescendo of this sport and anyone who dismisses that is simply deluding themselves.

N
NHinSH 136 days ago

4 years is a long time, players will retire, form will drop, new players will emerge. Ireland played well at the RWC, beat the eventual champions and came within a whisker of beating the runner up so wholesale changes aren’t needed.

England have had a number of retirements, players injured or no longer eligible, despite finishing 3rd they also didn’t really perform so its hardly a fair comparison.

Ireland can continue to perform and dominate for 4 years and then go into a world cup, it’s true that there is no need to ‘cycle’.

R
Rob 136 days ago

Everyone is so keen to tear down this Irish team and are constantly giving out about “arrogant” fans on all forums I see but the reality is that over the last 15 years we have transformed as a team and a nation from timid underdogs to nervous high achievers to expected high achievers. It’s only natural that when you move so far away from your past rivalries and start heavily challenging teams that used to look down on you as nothing more than whipping boys that they feel the need to lash out and put you down. No sensible Irish fan is under any illusions about our team and we are constantly crying out for changes we feel need to be made like player rotation or tactical changes. We don’t see ourselves as best in the world but we believe we have the tools and the quality of players to be the best if given the chance to prove it. Are Kiwis and South Africans not the same, were the English not the same so long ago? Many Irish fans went into last weeks match reckoning we’d either lose by 2 or by 20 so naturally after winning like that we’d be ecstatic, are only perennial losers allowed to celebrate their wins?

D
David 2 136 days ago

After reading this I’m not sure it’s the Irish who are bitter. You might want to have a close look in the mirror.

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