By Greg Stutchbury
TOKYO (Reuters) – Ireland’s boisterous fans drowned out the All Blacks’ pre-match haka with a stirring rendition of Fields of Athenry on Saturday but leave Japan having to wait at least another four years for World Cup success.
Despite never making it past the quarter-finals at six previous tournaments, hopes were high the Irish could reach the last four, having been regarded the best side in the world less than a year ago.
Instead, their performances showed they had peaked about a year too early.
Their best results came from late-2016 until last November, a period which included their first win against the All Blacks — a 40-29 triumph in Chicago.
That launched a run of 23 victories in 27 tests, and after their 16-9 win over New Zealand in Dublin last November, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen proclaimed them the World Cup favourites.
Ireland struggled to reach those heights again and shortcomings in their suffocating style of play were exposed before the World Cup in a 57-15 thrashing by England.
Coach Joe Schmidt complained then of a “malaise” surrounding the side.
Despite a subsequent defeat of Wales and a dominant win in their World Cup opener against a Scotland team that did not show up, it was apparent they were underperforming.
They were shocked 19-12 by Japan at Shizuoka Stadium and while they beat Russia 35-0 and Samoa 47-5, only the most hopeful fan expected them to stay beyond the All Blacks clash.
“When you hit a high there is always a little bit of a drop,” Schmidt said after the 46-14 loss to the All Blacks on Saturday.
Schmidt, whose Ireland tenure has now ended, said the defeat had ‘broken’ him, while the country’s obsession with breaking their quarter-final curse appeared to have distracted the players.
The New Zealander exits with inspirational captain Rory Best, who has retired.
Johnny Sexton, who is 34, 30-year-old Conor Murray and outside backs Rob Kearney (33) and Keith Earls (32) may not have another World Cup cycle left in their legs.
Veteran prop Cian Healy (32) and loose forward Peter O’Mahony (30) may also not be around for France in 2023.
New coach Andy Farrell, however, has the ability to build around lock James Ryan and a backline of Jacob Stockdale, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw.
Earls said the future might be promising.
“We were so close and … we just seem to shoot ourselves in the foot in quarter-finals,” the 32-year-old said.“Hopefully under Faz (Farrell) the lads can build and get that one step further.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Ian Ransom)