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The Damning Stat That Embarrasses Irish Rugby - How Damning Is It?

The Damning Stat That Embarrasses Irish Rugby - How Damning Is It?
By Conor Neville
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Ireland's standing as the only serious rugby nation not to reach the Rugby World Cup semi-finals has been the source of embarrassment for some time now.

The Australian's Wayne Smith was the first foreign writer to deploy the 'c' word (that's 'choke') with regard to Ireland this week, a designation supported by our status as strangers to the last four.

Even bloody Scotland have reached the World Cup semi-finals, they say with incredulity. Wales and Argentina have both reached two semi-finals at this stage.

How justifiable is the sense of embarrassment?

For one thing, we shouldn't attach too much importance to Scotland's standing as past World Cup semi-finalists.

It's a petty point, but their sole semi-final appearance in 1991 owes much to a tame draw and the fact that South Africa were still banned from international competition at the time. After getting the better of Ireland in the pool phase, only Samoa blocked the path to the last four.

Also, Ireland are the only Celtic nation to have beaten tri-nations opposition in the World Cup. Wales' quarter-final triumphs came against England in 1987 and Ireland in 2011.


For the first four World Cups (1987-99) Ireland hadn't the talent to go any further than the quarter-finals.

In 1987, the IRFU made plain their hostility to the new tournament by ordering their players not to train, lest everyone fall into the trap of taking the whole thing too seriously. They believed the new competition would hasten the arrival of professionalism.

The team's preparations were deliberately ramshackle and they were beaten by both Wales in the pool stages and Australia in the quarter-finals. In between, they managed wins over Canada and Tonga.


In '91 and '95, the team arguably overachieved.

Amazingly, after roughly a decade following the fortunes of the 'golden generation', 1991 remains the closest Ireland have come to the World Cup semi-finals. Their stirring performance against the eventual winners was reminiscent of Scotland's effort last Sunday.


In South Africa, a victory over Wales and a quarter-final spot was the summit of their ambitions. They beat Wales 24-23 in a game noted for it's poor quality and then went down honourably to France in the last eight.


In 1999, meanwhile, a mediocre Irish team who were well used to losing, fell to Argentina in a quarter-final play-off game. Even had Ireland avoided embarrassment in Lens, that side were not reaching a semi-final. France would have sliced them up in the quarters.

In 2003, with O'Driscoll at the peak of his powers, they arguably had the talent to progress further, but a hard-headed outsider would still conclude that a quarter final was about their level. A respectable performance in the pool-phase saw them stand strong against Argentina and then come within a whisker of taking down Australia.

Against France in the quarters, we were back in 1987 territory. Beaten out the game at half-time, with only a couple of late tries making the scoreboard look halfway bearable.


In truth, it's only the past three World Cups, in which Ireland clearly had the tools to do better.

2007 was a write off. A fundamental miscalculation was made in the team's preparation - a mixture of over-training and lack of game time, as elucidated in the Genesis Report - and they arrived in France woefully off-colour. The die was cast when they got on the plane. There was no recovering of their form. A disaster.

It's the last two World Cups where Ireland have really copper-fastened their reputation as World Cup chokers. Two quarter-final defeats that Jogi Low would no doubt deem unnecessary.


In a indictment of Declan Kidney's coaching, Brian O'Driscoll, usually reticent about criticising those with whom he has worked, asserted that the Wales loss wasn't caused by mental frailty, but by poor planning.

While this year, one would have to be very obtuse not to allow that the team were hobbled with injuries in their quarter-final loss.

Still, the 'chokers' charge has been levied freely. This is unsurprising for people often find the 'they choked' explanation irresistible. It's so much easier and more intriguing than dry technical explanations.


It is also much damning making it much more fun for rival fans. The choker charge doesn't simply impugn mere sporting ability. It establishes the guilty party as an around windy bastard who could barely be described as a man at all.

This factor, combined with New Zealand's World Cup form this decade, means Ireland will be written off as the World Cup's biggest chokers for the next four years.

As Shane Horgan said on Second Captains during the week, 'I don't think we're ever going to be taken seriously by the southern hemisphere teams until we make a semi-final of a World Cup or better because that's the only barometer of world achievement... until we do something special at a World Cup we're always going to have to face that criticism.'

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