Rugby World Cup 2015: Uncertain Future For Ireland

We have only just arrived at the semi-final stage, and it is already apparent that the 2015 Rugby World Cup will be remembered as a tale of two hemispheres.

The BBC’s Tom Fordyce has pointed out that in six out of seven previous Rugby World Cups there were at least two European semi-finalists. Consequently, this will be the first time ever that there is no Six Nations representation in the final four, and the tournament will now finish with Japan standing as the only northern hemisphere side to have registered a victory over an antipodean counterpart.

Inevitably, this circumstance will prompt a great deal of soul-searching across Europe, and although it was Northern Hemisphere rugby’s two biggest and wealthiest nations who most severely underperformed (England and France), it is arguably Ireland who will feel the effect of this power-shift most acutely following the Rugby World Cup.

After all, 2015 was supposed to be the year in which Ireland would shake off three decades of under-performance at the Rugby World Cup and progress past the quarter-final stage for the first time in their history.

Joe Schmidt’s team arrived in England following consecutive Six Nations championship victories and with a record of having beaten every country except New Zealand in World Rugby’s top ten in the previous two seasons.

The Pool campaign went almost precisely according to plan.

Comfortable bonus-point defeats of Canada and Romania eased Ireland into the tournament. Ireland’s hard-fought matchday three victory against Italy sharpened Schmidt’s side perfectly to secure a third consecutive triumph over France to top Pool D and guarantee themselves an All Black-free pathway to the final.

All that stood in the way of Europe’s best team and a historic semi-final spot against Australia (who they beat last November and at the 2011 World Cup) was Argentina, a team who had lost eighteen out of twenty-one Rugby Championship matches in the lead-up to the World Cup.

The difference in quality, though, could scarcely have been larger as Ireland’s poor performance proved.

Daniel Hourcade’s team were 17-0 up inside a quarter of an hour, and while Ireland deserve credit for having come within a missed Ian Madigan penalty of levelling the match at 23-all heading into the final quarter, the Rugby Championship’s weakest side ultimately inflicted a double-score defeat on the Six Nations champions.

The absence of a third of Schmidt’s first-choice XV undoubtedly diminished Ireland’s level. However, the difference in quality between the two backlines was such that one would have to question whether even a fully fit Irish side would have been capable of beating the Pumas.

Indeed, the truth is that Ireland have never been an effective attacking unit under Schmidt.

Upon succeeding Declan Kidney in 2013, the Kiwi built a systems-driven game plan tailored to getting the most out of the playing pool which he inherited. Irish rugby has thus come to be characterised by a watertight defence, contestable ball-kicking, an aggressive approach to the breakdown, and an emphasis on controlling territory and possession through the half-backs.

The manner of Ireland’s Six Nations victories in the Spring illustrates this perfectly. It is remarkable that where England scored eighteen tries and conceded eleven in finishing as runners-up, Ireland managed just eight tries, four of which came on the final day against Scotland. However, they conceded only three.

But while this pragmatic brand of rugby is sufficient to be successful in Europe, it has been shown as fundamentally inadequate against the Rugby Championship teams; a fact that the former Leinster boss, Matt Williams, has been warning of since March.

In this sense, Ireland may be seen to embody the collective dilemma in which Northern Hemisphere rugby will find itself following this Rugby World Cup. The IRFU must decide whether to follow Argentina in sacrificing short-term domestic success in order to develop a rugby culture capable of rivalling the Southern Hemisphere countries or to maintain their current Six Nations-oriented development plan.

In this morning’s Irish Times, the recently retired Ireland centre, Gordon D’Arcy, argued persuasively that Ireland must focus on building for the future. However, it remains to be seen whether the IRFU will adopt the same outlook, or if Mr. Schmidt will remain in Dublin long enough to implement such reforms.

[Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images Sport]