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The ghosts of World Cups past are floating about the Ajinomoto stadium. Those who remember are forgiven for feeling like they have been transported back to Melbourne in 2003.
The similarities are uncanny. For retiring hooker and heroic captain Keith Wood, see retiring hooker and heroic captain Rory Best. Hope for the future used to be Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, now Ireland have James Ryan and Garry Ringrose. Like David Humphreys and Ronan O’Gara, the more encouraging Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery rivalry has many miles to run.
The vibe – a descent into hopelessness – was the same until Ryan walked into the mixed zone with no socks and a maturity way beyond his 23 years. He came when others would not. No senior players walked the line.
It feels awfully like the quarter-final exit from 16 years ago rather than the 2011 defeat to Wales. Wellington, and those regrets will never fade but at least New Zealand’s man handling of the Irish pack was, like France in ’03, a clean kill.
Maybe wiser owls can tell Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale, Tadhg Furlong and Ryan how it’s all going pan out. Come France 2023, or failing that 2027, there will be fresh opportunity to end this interminable cycle of World Cup failure but only if Ireland avoid the next wave of superhuman New Zealanders.
James Ryan disagrees because James Ryan sees a future that older minds cannot even contemplate. Because he has to.
“Joe has taken Irish rugby to new levels,” said the leader of every team he has played on up until becoming a valued lieutenant under Best at this World Cup. “Joe has set standards that are different now than before he took over.”
Ryan is speaking from a position of strength having led the Ireland under-20s to a World Cup final and after winning everything on offer in European rugby at club and Test level.
O’Driscoll and O’Connell had no medals in 2003.
But, right now, Ryan and Ringrose remain stuck in the same mud as their predecessors. And the subsequent glut of silverware could not get them past Wales in windy Wellington.
All these World Cup days get clumped together now as a large majority of the public will understandably lose faith. They will believe that a semi-final is beyond the reach of male Irish rugby players.
Not Ryan, and that provides some comfort after this ruthless dismantling.
“I think [Irish rugby] can get to that level. We have had some brilliant wins, this group, and I know last year has been tough because there has been some losses. The results aren’t being produced at the moment.
“Playing for Ireland means absolutely everything to me. it means everything to the lads. I am incredibly proud to be Irish.”
There has never been enough Ryans or O’Connells. That’s been the problem. Maybe that is about to change. Maybe the coming generation will be good enough.
Maybe Schmidt truly lit the flame.
“I hope so,” Ryan replied. “We hadn’t beaten New Zealand. We’ve done that. Or won a Grand Slam in a long time. We did
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