No one ever said it would be easy for Ireland to reach the World Cup quarter-finals and beyond, right from the moment they were pitched in with France and Argentina in Pool D for death or, at any rate, damned difficult. But to hear talented and fundamentally honest players such as Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan speak in the past week with regret and not a little bitterness of four years' hard work about to go down the drain certainly raises the question of what went wrong. How did the highest-ranked team from Britain and Ireland at France 2007 come to this: needing a miraculous defeat of Argentina merely to reach the last eight?
Eddie O'Sullivan, Ireland's head coach, can normally talk his way out of any predicament. But he looked pretty stumped at last Saturday's media inquest the morning after the 25-3 defeat by France the night before. Clinging resolutely to a statistical analysis, he spoke of this number of line breaks and that number of lost line-outs and waved a piece of paper like a latter-day Chamberlain. It was unconvincing. The Irish had been well beaten.
Puzzlingly, O'Sullivan also dead-batted questions about how many points Ireland would now need to qualify, for all the world as if he had not given it a thought. This is a man who hates being second-guessed.
A man, too, who was given an almighty vote of confidence by his employers just before the World Cup with a four-year extension to his contract, and is the favourite to coach the British & Irish Lions to South Africa in 2009. It was left to Mark Tainton – one of O'Sullivan's assistant coaches who, in common with the players, have been stoically loyal to their master – to sum it up. "It's all very well talking about a bonus point against Argentina," Tainton said. "We failed to get the one we should have had against Georgia."
Instead, after a stumbling start against Namibia (32-17), O'Sullivan's side failed hopelessly to subdue the Georgians. The lightness of touch to move quickly away from contact and allow O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy to work their midfield magic was absent. Ireland scraped a 14-10 win and they could have lost had Georgia's goal-kicking been better.
Afterwards O'Driscoll said: "We knew we were going to have to pull out big performances to come out of this group and nothing's changed."
This was the same O'Driscoll – Ireland's captain and muse – whose World Cup preparation was disrupted by a punch in the face from an itinerant New Zealander during a warm-up match in Bayonne. What possessed O'Sullivan to agree such a potentially troublesome fixture remains a mystery. Looking further back to the Six Nations Championship in the spring, Ireland's 20-17 defeat by France at Croke Park was significant. O'Sullivan's every move was followed by the television cameras of RTE, making a DVD of the season. The idea was that the credits would roll with a first Grand Slam since 1948.
Ireland won a third Triple Crown in four years, and they thrashed England for a fourth straight win over the world champions. But they let the French in for a sucker-punch late try and there was no Slam. It fuelled the feeling that this Ireland side – players and coaches – are gasping for breath when it comes to world rugby's highest ground.
The France rematch eight days ago was a chance for redemption. Paul O'Connell, one imagined, would get a grip on the line-out and Ireland would start to play.
No way. Sébastien Chabal, whose talent for line-out jumping had hitherto been as hidden as the skin on his chin, stole the first Irish throw and another four lost line-outs followed. The arguably overdue decision to drop the scrum-half Peter Stringer made no impact. Ireland conceded too many penalties and another crucial bonus point went west.
It is easy to envisage the inner doubts festering at the team's hotel in one of the drabber parts of Bordeaux. There was the press coverage of Ronan O'Gara's private life; the rumours – strongly denied – that Geordan Murphy had wanted to quit the squad; and, last Wednesday, the shock of the prop Simon Best falling suddenly ill with what is thought to be a cardiac problem. Horgan said it would be "disgusting" if Ireland's World Cup was to end early. O'Driscoll's word for it was "travesty".
"Cometh the hour, cometh the man," O'Sullivan said as he recalled Murphy for a first World Cup start today.
The most optimistic Irish fans clinging to the wreckage of this World Cup are recalling Munster's four-try "miracle match" against Gloucester in the 2003 Heineken Cup. They made a DVD of that one too. If O'Sullivan manages to get the Irish blood up, hardening his forwards while liberating the backs finally to give of their best, it would be turn-up to be replayed into eternity.Reuse content