This has been Ireland's greatest ever Rugby World Cup campaign. You do know that, right?
Sure, as my blog banner has pointed out over the past few months, we got to within five minutes of a semifinal in 1991. But had that victory over Australia panned out, it would have been an upset similar to that if Argentina had overturned the All Blacks in Auckland in this year's quarterfinal.
This time, we finished in first place in our pool – something we have never done before at this tournament. And that meant we were favoured, if only marginally, but still favoured nonetheless, to progress to the final four.
That we didn't actually do it will be the topic of debate for many a year to come, but I couldn't start this article without pointing out that what Declan Kidney's squad have achieved in New Zealand has set a standard to be met in future tournaments, and as you can see by my writeup of Leinster's victory over Connacht Saturday afternoon, that future definitely looks bright.
Now – to the match itself. Throughout this World Cup I have been doing a stint as guest writer for The Rugby Blog, where my task was to both preview every Ireland match and afterwards give individual ratings for each player.
The ratings will be up later on when I get a chance to watch the match again at lunchtime – but for this writeup, I want to go on my memory from watching the match at Kiely's in Donnybrook early on Saturday morning, as I feel the haze the couple of days might put on my recollection should reflect the daze with which I was stood there looking at events unfold in Wellington.
In my preview, I was asked to spell out “what to expect” of the Irish, and this was my opening sentence :
“Ireland’s success has come more from what they do without the ball than with it. Expect 80 minutes of tough tackling”
Put simply...I expected Ireland to be able to tackle at the gain line just as much as I expected the unpainted grass on the pitch to be green.
So when Gordon D'Arcy leaves a gap down the touchline that Andy Powell could have driven a golf buggy through and still scored, and then later both Keith Earls and Cian Healy can't decide which one of them wants to tackle Jonathan Davies, you don't really have to look much further as to why we lost.
Yes, I know...Wales stepped up the mark which we ourselves had set in the pool phase and players like Phillips, Warburton and Roberts among others contested with just the right intensity for the entire 80 minutes all over the park. And of course I wish them all the best for the remainder of the tournament.
But the fact remains...twelve Welsh points came from those two tries, and twelve points was the winning margin. So if we had been on the ball defensively as we would have expected to be, we could be still be moaning about a below par performance today yet actually be in the semifinals.
And when such a fundamental part of your game goes belly up like that, I can only wonder about our mindset.
We had done the job of getting out of the pool, even exceeding those expectations. That was the result of a long process that went all the way back to Declan Kidney's appointment in 2008.
But at fulltime in Dunedin when we had comfortably dispatched the Italians, that job was done. And a new one lay ahead. So what happened in between to make us lose our focus?
I have said before on this blog how important the week in between matches can be when it comes to the eventual performance...we showed it when we denied England the Grand Slam earlier this year.
So not that I'm blaming this player fully by a long chalk, but why the hell was Keith Earls going on Newstalk radio saying he was “visualising winning the World Cup” during such a vital week????
Either someone in the Irish camp dropped the ball by not warning the players about talking to the press about anything beyond the task at hand, or they did give the warning and Earls ignored it. Whichever one it was, we were given clear signs that the squad just was not fully prepared to get through such a crucial six-day turnaround, something the Welsh appeared easily able to do.
Another haze of confusion I retain from Saturday morning is over the direction of the wind. Ronan O'Gara was picked primarily for his ability from the tee, and I also read somewhere that the Wellington “Caketin” Stadium was favourable for placekickers.
So I can only assume that he spurned those early chances to kick for the posts because the wind was against him, and the RTE commentator we were listening to in Kiely's agreed. But when I went on Twitter at halftime I realised that the Setanta folk were suggesting the wind was actually with us in the first half. Which the hell was it???
Well I really hope it was because of the wind. Because otherwise I can't for the life of me work out why O'Gara wouldn't have at least attempted the first kick. Sure, the Welsh hit with an early try, but should this have rattled us?
No way. It was their first attack and they squeezed in right in the corner and followed it up with a monumental conversion by Priestland. There was still plenty of time for us to regroup and to make it 7-3 on our first penalty would have been more than enough to settle us.
Yet we went for the attacking option of some red zone possession. Fine – it's a positive move, but surely if that was our plan from the start we would have been better served with Sexton at outhalf?
Remember...once again, I'm not blaming O'Gara...wasn't his finest day at the office but even though he's the oldest member of the squad the penalty-taking decisions are out of his hands.
So what I'm trying to say is that somewhere on the flight from Dunedin to Wellington we lost our ability to stick with our basics and get the job done. And although we weren't the only quarterfinalists to fall short when it mattered, we were facing a side who had ticked all the boxes and deservedly won the day. For me, nothing illustrates the match better than the lead photo on this post.
But hopefully the boys will be remembered for what they achieved over the five weeks rather than what they failed to do. Given the disappointment in the air at Kiely's after the final whistle, that may not be easy.
Still, there's a 2015 campaign to prepare for now, and a host of talent waiting in the wings to step up. And should we repeat our pool performance the next time, hopefully players like Keith Earls and Cian Healy can help the squad make every second before knockout games count.
I'll finish with my tweet from full time :
“Congrats Wales. You brought it we didn't.” JLP