HEARTBROKEN Jamie Heaslip started the long journey home from New Zealand today admitting, "I won’t be watching any more of this World Cup. It would be too painful."
The big Leinster No8 conceded that Ireland sowed the seeds of their own downfall in the 22-10 loss to Wales that meant an early World Cup exit. “You could say a lot of things went their way. But we made more mistakes at the crucial points than they did.
“They took their opportunities very well but we didn’t. Both teams went at each other pretty hard but the execution of accuracy perhaps wasn’t quite there for us.”
Even so, Heaslip revealed that he had used the memory of Leinster’s roaring comeback triumph in the Heineken Cup final last season as a motivational factor in the second half when Wales got ahead.
“When you have come back from 21-0 down it doesn’t bother you how many scores your opponents get ahead. I always think we are good enough to win and even when Wales went 15-10 up and then 22-10 ahead, confidence was never an issue.
“But the fact is at this level, the team that makes the most mistakes loses and that was us unfortunately. We played some great rugby in this tournament but against Wales we turned it over too many times.”
Ireland sat in the Wellington spring sunshine yesterday and tried to put the agony of their exit into some context.
Perhaps flanker Stephen Ferris got closer than anyone to the reality. “If Wales play like they did against us there is no reason why they can’t win the tournament,” he said.
He had a point. Ferris fingered a growing lump on the right side of his face as he remembered the 145 tackles Wales made to shut Ireland out of the game and secure their place in the semi-final. Just how good had that rearguard been?
“Very effective indeed,” was Ferris’s verdict. “They are a very smart side. Every opportunity they got they seemed to take. They had one opportunity in the first half and they scored.
“They have big, strong ball carriers, a magnificent back row, a strong scrum and strong line-out. They can certainly progress even further.”
Ferris spoke with reason and a hint of resignation at Ireland’s fate. As he said, Ireland had played pretty well at this World Cup and enjoyed some special moments. “We played well in this tournament. We won our pool but we knew it was going to be a tough game against Wales and they controlled the game very well. Fair play to them, they beat us well.
“But despite that, we’re deeply disappointed. Our tournament is over. But we will go back, re-group and prepare for the next tournament.”
Wasn’t this just another 2007, another 2003 and another 1999, he was asked? Even Ferris, philosophical and affable in the aftermath of defeat, winced a bit at that one.
“It was never about 2007; it was about here and now. We firmly believed we could go further in this tournament but we haven’t. But 2007 is 2007 … history. And now 2011 is the same, it is over. We must push on.”
Tommy Bowe was asked just what it had been like to be one of those Irishmen smothered by an all-enveloping red blanket. “It was very frustrating. You could tell how we maybe forced it a little bit and that led to knock-ons or turnover ball. They just seemed to have men everywhere. They weren’t falling off tackles either and we just couldn’t get across the line. It was just hugely frustrating.”
Bowe denied that it had been a grossly sub-standard Irish performance. “I don’t think we played that badly. But maybe we could have been a little bit smarter whenever we got down there and a little more patient.
“We seemed to get a little try-line fever when we saw the whitewash. We tried to rush things a bit when we could have probably got ourselves set and really attacked hard.
“But the Welsh really played well, no-one should overlook that. We were hugely confident going into the game and in certain patches we played well. But we never really got into our rhythm.”
To their credit, none of the Irish players attempted to minimise the sense of a glorious chance lost. That isn’t their style; they front up to reality. Tommy Bowe wasn’t about to buck that trend.
“It was a great opportunity missed. Yes, we had an opportunity to get into the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time in our history. We know that a lot of people will be very disappointed in Ireland and we can say, no-one is more disappointed than us.”