Joe Schmidt awoke this morning to the same feeling that Declan Kidney awoke to in Wellington in 2011, the same feeling that Eddie O'Sullivan awoke to in Melbourne in 2003, the same feeling that Warren Gatland awoke to in Lens in 1999, etc etc and on and on since the blazers behind rugby union started organising these get-together's every four years. For all the hope and hype, Irish rugby has a glass ceiling. Ireland is the middle management of world rugby: possessing some good ideas, fun to have at the Christmas party but not getting a corner office any time soon.
It wasn't Ireland's worst World Cup loss, but it was only a point better than the 24-point hammerings doled out by New Zealand and France at the 1995 World Cup. This was to the team ranked eight in the World Rugby rankings at the end of August.
We all thought this World Cup would be different. We thought that because we thought we had the best coach in world rugby. The emphatic Heineken Cup wins with Leinster, the two consecutive Six Nations trophies. Even the losses were inspiring: the All Blacks in Dublin, England away in 2014 by three points, Wales away in 2015 by a try. Ireland beat everyone in the world in between bar New Zealand. It wasn't the champagne rugby that Leinster played between 2008-2012 but Schmidt seemed to have built a machine that could not be beaten. Brian O'Driscoll retires? So what. We'll stick Jared bleedin' Payne into 13 and not miss a beat. It was a system that seemed capable of surviving any shock and thriving.
That forcefield of invincibility that Schmidt had constructed since the 2013 Autumn Internationals was destroyed in about four minutes yesterday. All of the hallmarks of Ireland under Schmidt - immaculate defensive organisation, fierceness at the breakdown, sound, pragmamtic kicking and chasing - were gone. Total and utter systems failure. Ireland were torn apart. You have to sympathise with the task that Schmidt faced in preparing for a game without his four best players but we held out hope because Schmidt has proved many times that players can be replaced without the system suffering.
What happened in those first 20 minutes yesterday? Why were Ireland asleep? Schmidt looked ashen afterwards and spoke of a lack of experience in the team. But if a team looks flat or underprepared or overwhelmed by the occasion, its coach must take some responsibility.
It was Ireland's fundamental approach to rugby that was exposed yesterday. The entire World Cup cycle had built to this one game. Everyone knew our quarterfinal would be against Southern Hemisphere opposition. Throw all our fallen heroes into that lineup yesterday, and I'm still not certain Ireland had the gameplan to beat that Argentina team. Ireland has developed a system under Schmidt that seems solely designed to beat Northern Hemisphere teams. Yesterday, we met an opponent who matched us in the air and at the breakdown, but also possessed the ability to slaughter us out wide.
Here's what history will tell us: Ireland won a group featuring the worst French team of the professional era, the worst team of the Six Nations, plus Canada and Romania. We lost a quarterfinal by 23 points to the team that finished third in the 2015 Rugby Championship. The Six Nations will roll around again next January and beating Gatland and whoever coaches England (Schmidt maybe) will get us going again. But it will feel hollow. Because there is a gulf between the two hemispheres and yesterday we caught a glimpse of how big it is. In four years time, it'll be even bigger.
What felt like progress may have actually been running in place.