When Ireland's coaching team held a get-together with the media yesterday morning, the ubiquitous Rugby World Cup branding was absent for once, and you were almost tempted to believe that Eddie O'Sullivan and company were out of the tournament already.
Almost, but not quite. "The position we're in with regards to playing Argentina next week is that it's certainly a mountain to climb," said O'Sullivan. "The speculation will be whether we can win and score four tries. It's not easy, but it's possible."
O'Sullivan stood to face the cameras and microphones with his back against a blank wall, flanked by his assistants, Brian McLoughlin, Graham Steadman, Niall O'Donovan and Mark Tainton, like the Usual Suspects.
They had been back at their hotel for about eight hours, having returned after midnight from the 25-3 defeat by France which gave a fresh slant to Pool D. Assuming a win last night for Argentina over Namibia, any permutation of two quarter-finalists from three remains possible, but the Irish are third favourites. France, rehabilitated after their opening defeat by the Pumas, take on Georgia in Marseilles on Sunday, followed by Ireland against Argentina in Paris. The pool runners-up face a Cardiff quarter-final, almost certainly against the All Blacks.
"I am wishing for Ireland to beat Argentina," said Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, France's scrum-half who kicked five penalties against the Irish and set up the second of Vincent Clerc's tries. "They can really do us a favour. I might take a trip to Lourdes and light a few candles to hope for an Irish victory."
It was a sentiment to appeal to many an Irish heart, but O'Sul-livan's men, who have managed only five tries in three matches and missed out on a bonus point against Georgia, are surely struggling now for the miracle of the big win they will probably need to inflict on Argentina.
"If your line-out doesn't fire and you give up seven kicks at goal, it tells a big story of where we ended up," said O'Sullivan, in the knowledge that his French counterpart, Bernard Laporte, was in clover. All the Paris headlines yesterday were of a Bleus bandwagon back on track. The prodigal son, Freddy Michalak, has won new favour with his lovely outside-of-the-boot chip for Clerc's first score. Ireland's fortunes hang by a thread, like the giant rugby ball suspended halfway up the Eiffel Tower.
"I'm finding it difficult to fully understand what's gone wrong, I don't think it's gameplan related," said the wing Shane Horgan. "It's a lot of individual errors." The truth may simply be that this Ireland side, having won three Triple Crowns in four years but no Grand Slams, have realised there is a level they cannot reach. It does not make them a bad team; they have outdone any Irish side since the 1940s. But it does present O'Sullivan a mighty problem, both this week and on to 2012, the end of the contract extension he was given by the Irish Rugby Union before the tournament began.
"It would be disgusting for this team not to get something out of this World Cup," said Horgan. "There are guys who have worked too hard, and too many good professionals, for us not to perform against Argentina."
Perhaps the last thing Ireland needed was for their fly-half Ronan O'Gara – whose first-half drop goal provided Ireland's only points – to have been hounded in the French and Irish tabloid newspapers over his private life. But as O'Gara moved through the bowels of the Stade de France on Friday night he needed little prompting to unburden himself. "The three days building up to this game were tough," he said. "There have been rumours about me going around for a year.
"It's despicable reading it,that you're having difficultiesin your marriage and getting kicked out of home, that's the lowest of the low. My wife is a primary school teacher and she buys papers in Cork.
"It's not for me to say I have a perfect marriage. Like everyone else little things happen, but that's behind closed doors at home. It was said in L'Equipe that I owed €300,000 (£210,000) in a gambl-ing debt. That's a load of nonsense, but the gambling affront doesn't bother me because I'll say it straight up – I do back horses and do it frequently. I own racehorses and have placed bets since I was 18. I didn't expect this, I never asked for it. I don't ask for support either, but the amount of people that have been on to me has been brilliant. Most of the texts are pretty funny, slagging me. The one good thing that came out of it is that it has now been put to bed."
As for the rugby, O'Gara was undermined by Ireland's faulty line-out, there were not enough opportunities for snappy inside passes and the luck of the bounce he needed with his punting was absent. As O'Sullivan put it: "For Ronan to play in a good zone he needs a good flow of possession, and one of our key sources of possession [the line-out] wasn'tthe best part of our game."
Just before the fly-half left the stadium he was reminded that Ireland still have a chance of qualifying. "Ah, there is a chance, but you know..." he said, blowing out those familiar ruddied cheeks and giving a good impression of whatever a man of Cork calls a Gallic shrug.Reuse content