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Ranking Ireland's Rugby World Cup Campaigns, From 'Horrific' To 'Heroic Defeat'

Ranking Ireland's Rugby World Cup Campaigns, From 'Horrific' To 'Heroic Defeat'
By Balls Team Updated
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This article was originally written in 2015 by Conor Neville following Ireland's Rugby World Cup defeat to Argentina, and has since been updated to include 2019's heartbreak. Where will the 2023 campaign fall on this pecking order?

Ireland and Rugby World Cups: they're not a very potent mix. Ahead of a tournament where Ireland enter as the world's top-ranked team but face the most arduous path to a semifinal of any Irish team since the launch of this competition, it's hard to be terribly optimistic, especially if history is to be a guide.

Almost all of these campaigns are depressing to some degree. But at least some of them are less depressing than others. There's been eight Rugby World Cups so far - here are most and least depressing from an Irish point of view.

9. 2007

A World Cup so traumatic it was debated on Questions and Answers and had a high profile Genesis Report commissioned in its aftermath.

Again, it was Argentina who applied the coup de grace to Ireland's World Cup hopes on September 30th. But such was the nature of the campaign that this represented perhaps Ireland's best performance.

The most harrowing moment was the 14-10 win over a second string Georgia, a barely believable game in which Denis Leamy's arm prevented the Georgians touching down in injury time.

Donncha O'Callaghan later told Tom English for his fantastic book 'No Borders' that Leamy hadn't got his hand underneath the ball. It should have been a try to Georgia.


Brent Pope, watching the game in Kiely's Pub, best articulated the feelings of Irish supporters in the closing stages against Georgia.

People at the end were almost livid. People were irate. It was a mixture of shock and being hacked off. Especially because it wasn't a situation whereby it was a substandard performance but it was still a 10 or 15 point win and you say 'okay, they didn't play particularly well'. This was a situation where, going into the last five minutes, people actually thought on the balance of play, Georgia probably deserved to win.

And in the last five or ten minutes, it wasn't like you were saying okay we'll put a line through this and move on, it's done and dusted and forget about it. It was a case of 'Oh my God! They're going to lose here!'


8. 1999

A miserable end to the decade, but also a fitting one. Ireland finished second in their pool, beating Romania and the USA but coming up a million miles short in the only testing encounter against Australia in Lansdowne Road.

The system being different back then, Ireland were pitched into a playoff game with the best ranked third place nation. Losing to Argentina was still considered unthinkable in those days and the reaction to the defeat in Lens was one of hot shame.


Trailing by four points, Ireland spent injury time trying to barge over the line from a 13 man lineout. All the while, full back Conor O'Shea stood all on his own on the far side of the pitch waving his arms.

Keith Wood said that the greatest indictment of the campaign was not that they'd lost Argentina but that they hadn't taken enough risks to win.  



7. 1987

A competition stained by Ireland's usage of 'Rose of Tralee' as a national anthem.

The IRFU were very wary of this World Cup business, fearing it would hasten the arrival of professionalism. They were determined that no one would take the event too seriously. According to Donal Lenihan, the players were ordered not train before flying out to New Zealand.

Of the tournament, Ireland qualified for the quarter-finals, though this was a rather modest given it consisted of losing to Wales and beating Canada and Tonga.


In the quarter-finals, they were beaten out the gate at half-time, but late tries by Hugo MacNeill and Michael Kiernan allowed Ireland claim a moral victory. This opportunity was gratefully seized by coach Mick Doyle who boasted that Ireland had won the second half.

Neil Francis, who starred in a sleeveless shirt at No.8 in Ireland's win over Tonga, has written this ridiculously entertaining account of that inaugural World Cup.

6. 2019

'Absolute carnage' - truer words were never spoke.


On the back of an all-conquering 2018 that saw Ireland claim a Grand Slam and a first win over New Zealand on home soil, the wheels fully came off for Joe Schmidt and co. in Japan.

Ireland started decently with a win against Scotland but looked lost and leggy against an irresistible Japan side. A bludgeoning against New Zealand sealed the quarterfinal exit.

After such unbelievable highs, the Joe Schmidt era ended with the whimperiest whimper imaginable. Ironically, had Ireland beat Japan, they would have met eventual tournament winners South Africa in the quarterfinals, so maybe it was all inevitable.



5. 1995

Ireland's 1995 Rugby World Cup campaign met the modest expectations set for it by the IRFU.

Landed in the pool of death with New Zealand, Japan and Wales, Ireland squeezed into the quarter-finals thanks to a 24-23 victory over Wales in a match that the many neutrals in the crowd utterly reviled.

They were not shy about expressing that revulsion, booing loudly every time any player booted the ball into the stand. Which happened a lot.



4. 2015

Probably the best team Ireland have sent to a World Cup under the most adored coach.

Given the high expectations beforehand, this must be struck down as a disappointing campaign, though the cruel run of injuries are a mitigating factor.

3. 2003

The only tournament for which Ireland had to pre-qualify - a legacy of their dismal performance in 1999 - 2003 is best remembered for the nerve-jangling one point win over Argentina in Adelaide and the near defeat of Australia in Sydney.

Ireland were flat in the quarter-final against France. As in 1987, the game was more or less over at half-time with a couple of late BOD tries throwing some respectability on the scoreboard.

Brian O'Driscoll may well have been at his peak in this tournament, giving one of his greatest displays against Australia in the pool phase.


2. 2011

Ireland's frustrating Six Nations campaign and poor form in the warm-ups dimmed expectations in advance of the tournament. And their win over the USA in the opener came unaccompanied by a bonus point.

It is the win over Australia in the second stage that elevates this tournament above many others. It is the only time a Celtic nation has defeated one of the old Tri-Nations sides in the World Cup.

However, the pool phase performance conspired to make the quarter-final loss, when it came, as crushing as 2015.


1. 1991

After more than a decade following the fortunes of the 'golden generation', this remains the closest Ireland have come to reaching the World Cup semi-final.

Australia had slaughtered Wales 38-3 in the pool stages and would go on to beat New Zealand soundly in the semi-finals and out-think England in the final at Twickenham.

In between, Ireland very nearly had them beat in the quarter-finals.

It's tough to place this tournament top of the pile given that Ireland did fall to Scotland in the pool stage, but then such was the unexpected and stirring nature of the performance that it is to rank up there. What makes it more remarkable as that the Irish players almost boycotted the game, with Des Fitzgerald ringing up Roly Meates the week beforehand telling him to 'tell your friends on the union that there won't be an Irish team running out on Sunday'.

The strike threat related to the IRFU's 'Victorian' treatment of players at the time.

Ironically, despite being hailed as a heroic effort, the quarter-final defeat was the start of a historic losing streak which wouldn't abate until Ireland beat Wales in Cardiff in the 1993 Five Nations.


Read more: George Hook's Proposed Next Move Will Push Him Further Into The Limelight

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