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So, Ireland bow out with not so much as a whimper but a limp shrug of the shoulders. After a night that showcased the dispassionate excellence of New Zealand – devastatingly simple, ruthless, cold-blooded – the Irish head home with the haunting familiarities of the past in their rearview mirror.
This was meant to be the campaign in which Ireland finally rewrote their World Cup narrative. Six tournaments had come and gone, each one culminating in the disappointment of a quarter-final departure. This, they said, was going to be different. This, they said, was going to be year they exorcised their demons, the year in which they reached round, grabbed the monkey off their back and kicked it into touch.
But it wasn’t to be. Not when New Zealand were the team lined up on the other side of the tape. From the moment Aaron Smith first crossed the line, 14 minutes on the clock, beads of sweat already dripping down the faces of the Irish, you sensed what was to come: an All Blacks masterclass, and the stuff of nightmares for Ireland.
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The writing has been on the wall for a while now. Joe Schmidt’s pursuit of perfection began dovetailing 11 months ago, that 16-9 win over Steve Hansen’s men – the second in three Tests – the coronation that had come too early.
Since then, the signs have been ominous. The Six Nations defeats by England and Wales. The humiliation at Twickenham. Japan’s mesmerising win in Shizuoka, followed by a laboured victory over Russia that, in spite of the 35-0 scoreline, had no-one convinced that the Irish could establish themselves as title contenders.
But the dismissals have come thick and fast – either a fruitless attempt to paper over the cracks or the byproduct of warped delusions. Take Johnny Sexton’s proclamation of positivity earlier this week. “We’ve been building pretty well apart from that poor 60 minutes against Japan; everything else has pretty much gone to plan,” said the fly-half. But wait, it gets better. “I’m hoping that having lost a pool game that we’ve got that quarter-final performance out of our system that we’ve had in other tournaments.” Famous last words.
Which brings us back to the deflation and disappointment of the present. “Heartbroken wouldn’t be too far away from how I and the players feel,” said Schmidt in his post-match press conference, in what will be his last as Ireland coach. Rory Best, who joins Schmidt in stepping down from international duties, echoed the sentiment. “We’ve got a lot of big guys in our team. It’s not often you get a changing room in
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