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comment Shameful, embarrassing, humiliating, catastrophic . . . giddy Autumn triumphs cannot mask abject World Cup failure


Ireland players applaud their supporters after the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in Chofu, Japan in 2019. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Ireland players applaud their supporters after the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in Chofu, Japan in 2019. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Ireland players applaud their supporters after the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in Chofu, Japan in 2019. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Unperturbed by serial World Cup failure, Irish rugby remains a global leader in its capacity to surrender to hype, and in its urge to peddle absurdly overblown fictions.

This compulsion to trumpet blast the nondescript, to elevate the significance of glorified challenge matches, and to upwardly distort the nation’s status tends to arrive at its most acute pitch amid the November chill.

Of course, on a primal level, the storm-roars of euphoria that howl across Lansdowne Road (or Lake Michigan) on those irregular occasions when Ireland outwit New Zealand are innate and entirely legitimate.

The extraordinary theatre of that 2016 afternoon in Soldier Field when Joe Schmidt’s side ended a 111-year wait to take down the All Blacks is tattooed to the marrow.

It felt monumental, beautiful, stirring. An eternal moment in time.

Not to acknowledge the eloquence of such evenings would amount to the last word in mean-spiritedness.

But there is an uncomfortable flip side to the narrative: The absence of context, the wilful amnesia about the inevitable Celtic carnage when Beauden Barrett got serious and morphed into tournament mode.

In case you'd forget, Ireland's underwhelming 2019 World Cup existence was finally euthanised by an injection of New Zealand brilliance that yielded a 32-point All Black victory that felt even more emphatic than Liverpool's recent disembowelling of Manchester United.

Ireland’s World Cup record stands alone on this island as a story of grotesque sporting underachievement.

In a code with, at a stretch, nine proper national teams, an inability to advance, even once, beyond the last eight pursing Webb Ellis Cup glory represents a truly monumental exhibition of incompetence.

Choose your adjective: Shameful, embarrassing, humiliating, catastrophic.

A nation powered by authentic sporting immortals – O’Driscoll, O’Connell, O’Gara, Sexton (even if injury has had a ruinous impact on Johnny’s tournaments) – has never once made it to the World Cup’s business end.

It is scarcely believable yet continually overlooked in the rush to beatify the authors of isolated friendly match (rugby aficionados hate the term, even it is entirely valid) victories over the titans of the southern hemisphere.

Consider the World Cup records of nations with similar or lesser resources.

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Wales finished third in 1987 and have been semi-finalists at two of the last three tournaments. Scotland, poor, maligned Scotland, were semi-finalists in 1991. Argentina finished third as recently as 2007.

Ireland, meanwhile, having repeatedly slammed into the quarter-final brick wall, have advanced no further than such superpowers as Canada, Samoa, Fiji and Japan.

If the World Cup is the game’s Supreme Court, its verdict is pitiless and at odds with the nation’s own bloated self-regard. It announces that the green machine is, in reality, just another chunk of insignificant oval ball flotsam.

We are the Inca kings of phony war.

Yes, Grand Slams carry profound historic weight; Six Nations titles send an electrifying thrill across the springtime.

But in World Cup combat, the arena where judgements on greatness are delivered, Ireland have made an art form of being also-rans.

This is why November’s megaphone pronouncements - the exulting in relatively meaningless surges up the world rankings - are so ill-advised.

That Chicago breakthrough in 2016, along with the 16-9 victory over the same storied All Black opposition two years later, was a cue for many to giddily stray into the badlands of boast and hyperbole and one-eyed bombast.

Irish rugby has never been content to celebrate itself in plain song.

Almost inevitably, 2019 offered the latest pitiless reminder of how such premature bravado tends to yield only a mocking World Cup dividend.

To distil it down to its essence: Until Ireland succeed in backing up non-tournament victories at the quadrennial showpiece, everybody would be best served by pressing the November mute button.

The breathless reaction to last week’s victory over Japan suggests such a subtle approach any time soon is unlikely.

Admittedly, Ireland were at times intoxicating - all be it against brutally underprepared Division Two opposition - but the deeper truth is that only one recent contest between these two nations carries any weight.

It unfolded in Shizuoka on September 28th, 2019, a World Cup Pool A fixture which finished Japan 19, Ireland 12.

When it mattered, the team in green floundered.

In the unlikely event of a home victory when New Zealand pop into Dublin on Saturday, a damburst of wild 2023 World Cup extrapolations will begin.

The answer to what it might mean for that tournament can be reduced on all known previous evidence to one word: Nothing.

Among the reasons aircraft are fitted with flight recorders is so that, in the event of a cataclysmic systems failure, aviation experts can study the causes and identify remedies to avoid a repeat.

If the black boxes have been retrieved from the disaster zones of Ireland’s nine World Cup appearances, then there has been little evident enthusiasm to absorb lessons that have been unremittingly stark.

Victory over New Zealand on Saturday would be thrilling and emotive, a stand-alone event absolutely worthy of raising several glasses in celebration.

But no firestorm of hype can alter a grim truth: Until Ireland find the best of themselves at the one tournament that truly matters, they will remain rugby’s godheads of underachievement.

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