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Wednesday 20 November 2019

Inept Irish collapse once again on big stage

Schmidt's legacy is tainted by stubborn blind loyalty to his old guard

STORM BEFORE THE CALM: Joe Schmidt tries to fire up his troops before Saturday’s quarter-final defeat. Photo: Getty Images
STORM BEFORE THE CALM: Joe Schmidt tries to fire up his troops before Saturday’s quarter-final defeat. Photo: Getty Images

There is nothing positive to take from Tokyo. Ireland board a flight tomorrow with broken dreams and huge regret about a failed World Cup that taints everything that went before it.

All the historic firsts count for nothing, the 74 per cent win record a meaningless stat in the context of two horror shows at the most important part of the cycle.

Joe Schmidt and his side climbed Everest a year early and ripped off their oxygen mask, before wandering off a cliff. The coach has a reputation for being ruthless, but his loyalty to old players cost him dear.

He was supposed to be an innovator, but he refused to evolve his game-plan beyond the conservative approach that succeeded a year ago.

No coach had ever been given such a clear run at this moment.

The barriers to entry had been removed, the free movement of players was enforced by the IRFU.

The all powerful coach took back control of his players’ minutes to the frustration of the provinces.

It was all supposed to be in the national interest, but when the moment to perform came they dropped the ball – literally and figuratively.

‘Schmexit’ is upon us and, for all that he may get a standing ovation and a soft interview on the ‘Late Late Show’ when he returns, the man who delivered so many big moments will go down in history as just another Irish coach whose team failed to perform when it mattered most.

It wasn’t for a lack of effort.

He poured everything into this World Cup campaign and it was impossible not to feel for him when the cameras lingered as New Zealand celebrated their seventh and final try.

Back in May, the challenge was laid down from above.

BETTER

“I think we’ve got to do better than we’ve done before, that’s the starting point, isn’t it?” IRFU performance director David Nucifora said.

“We’ve got to get to a semi-final, and obviously we want to go further than that if we can.

“But I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought that anything worse than a semi-final is going to be good for us.

“So we’ve got to get there and we’ve tried to do everything we can.

“Hopefully we get the bounce of the ball or a bit of luck from the injury gods along the way, but we’ve tried to do everything we can do to prepare and like any high level competition, you do need an element of luck along the way in those tournaments.

“So, hopefully, we get that but, you know, we will have felt that we have prepared really, really well and that we’ll be in a good position to deliver a really good performance in this tournament.”

They didn’t.

Luck and the bounce of a ball never came into it on Saturday.

On their biggest day, when it mattered most, they couldn’t deliver.

Johnny Sexton, so calm on Friday and so brilliant in 2018, was a shadow of his former self.

Conor Murray was inaccurate.

The wingers were awful, the centres outclassed.

They were battered in the tight-five and out-muscled at the breakdown.

Their set-piece ran fine, but in the moments where they created an opening, they invariably took the wrong decision.

Then they’d turn the ball over and no one enjoys turnover ball more than the All Blacks.

Nobody comes out of this with any credit.

New Zealand were superb, they looked like a team who were ready for this moment and who expected a real challenge.

What they got was a walkover.

Steve Hansen began withdrawing his main men early and often and, while he paid tribute to Schmidt at the start of his press conference, he quickly moved on to praising his assistant Ian Foster for reinventing the Kiwi attack.

Hansen backed form, Schmidt stuck with the old guard and it bit him in the end.

Remember Cardiff, when Murray and Sexton were struggling so badly and the coach refused to go to his bench.

Recall the loyalty to a 37-year-old captain who gave everything on Saturday but didn’t have it in his legs against the most dynamic team in the game.

He would point to a lack of options, he would correctly point out that there are no Sevu Reeces or George Bridge back home, but rather than back the in-form players like Jordan Larmour, Andrew Porter, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Conway and Rhys Ruddock, he stuck with a group of players who had credit in the bank.

Perhaps the ‘New Zealand Herald’ put it best when they wrote that Ireland resembled “limited old carthorses”.

Harsh, perhaps, but the truth hurts sometimes.

Between the ashen-faced Schmidt and the partying Ireland fans who’d long come to terms with another last-eight exit loomed Andy Farrell.

This was as damaging to the next man in as it was to the man he is replacing.

While New Zealand are waiting until after the World Cup to unveil their succession plan, Ireland decided to go early and anoint the former dual-code international who has been overseeing the defence since 2016.

He may deserve a clean slate, but the memory of seven New Zealand tries and Ireland’s Tokyo drift will hover over the next Six Nations.

He has hard decisions to make right away and needs to separate himself from the old regime.

Rory Best aside, all of the senior men are under contract and so they’ll be available for selection for the next Six Nations and he has big decisions to make; beginning with his captain.

In the spring, the Six Nations will roll around, the show will go on but Tokyo will linger for years.

Every win will be coloured by the memory of what happened when it mattered most.

The entire cycle will be marred by the drop-off in standards at the final moment.

It will haunt Schmidt wherever he goes next.

Twice, he led his team to the quarter-finals and twice they suffered record World Cup defeats.

At the end of the day, after all that work, that’s his legacy.

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