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Rugby World Cup – As Good As It Gets. Nearly!

Rugby World Cup – As Good As It Gets. Nearly!

Our sometime correspondent Adrian O’Farrell is back with his ‘mature reflection’ on the Rugby World Cup.

Apologies for the radio silence from your correspondent since Ireland’s demise in the World Cup, but the truth is that I haven’t really had the stomach for the job such was the paralysing effect of the kick in the solar plexus that was the defeat to Wales. 

As much as the win over Australia and the completeness of the performance in dispatching Italy was a tonic for the country, the corollary was true when we made our departure. 

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I’ve never really bought the argument that it’s better to be well beaten than lose a match narrowly that one might have won.

In losing narrowly, you’ll rue the defeat, the ‘what might have been’, but at least you’ll know that you had the capacity to have won, that you have played well enough to be there or thereabouts.

How much more sustaining is that than the sense that, actually, you were well beaten, that you aren’t really at the level required even though you thought you were?

Because it’s either that or face the alternative conclusion that when it really came down to it, you weren’t able to produce what was required even though you had it in you. In other words, the occasion got to you – loosely translated, you bottled it. A sportsman’s worst fear.

Ultimately, Ireland were outplayed when the match was really in the melting pot. At half-time I was concerned that we were down but reasonably content that it would come good.

Having conceded an early try, we had come back into the game to largely dominate a first half in which we pummelled their line for quite some time but couldn’t make it over, or at least, couldn’t get the ball down once we did.

But, while it may not have been pretty, it was pretty good. And then it got prettier as Ireland equalised through Keith Earls’ well-taken try. 

The unfortunate reality however is that at this key juncture in the match Ireland made several key errors that Wales capitalised on and by the time we came to, the game was over.

The sense that we contributed to our own downfall, whilst accepting that Wales took their chances very well, is unavoidable. 

Every match is different, with its own cadence, and every action brings its own knock-on effect so that it’s not possible to definitively say that were the two teams to play again today, Wales would win again.

But the evidence of the World Cup is that Wales have stolen a decent lead on us, particularly given how they have rejuvenated their side through the influx of youth. It has to be said that Warren Gatland, who appeared for some time to be flailing, has come good.

And in fairness to the former Ireland coach, he did quite a number on us. He negated our strengths exceptionally well and set a trap defensively for Ronan O’Gara, consciously or not, that worked very well.

On the basis of all available evidence at the time, the selection of the latter was well founded. But even he will concede that he had a poor game at the worst of times.

This just goes to show how capricious this game can be and how fine the margins are, because he is absolutely the last Irish player that you would accuse of ‘bottling it’. 

So where does all of this leave us? Looking at how Wales performed against France and France’s subsequent performance in the best of seven World Cup finals by a distance, one can argue that the game has never been more open at the very top end.

France could very easily have emerged as World Cup champions after a campaign in which they lost to Tonga. While this is quintessentially French, it is also true that Wales went very close to going the distance, and yet they lost three matches in the tournament. 

In deservedly beating Australia in the southern Hemisphere and topping their pool for the first time, Ireland have made a good stride forward. Despite the nature of our demise, this has been the first World Cup in which we have made a genuine impression on the tournament.

The Irish contribution to the story of this World Cup has been massive given how our topping our pool affected the quarter-final line-up, guaranteeing a North v South final.

But the Irish support has also been one of the storylines, adding great colour and reflecting positively on our people at a time when we have been badly in need of some positive imagery. 

This has actually been a fantastic World Cup. New Zealand has shown its best side off the pitch and finally won a second bauble in dramatic fashion.

While it was not achieved with the all-court game for which they are renowned, it was compelling in its drama and spoke of a grittiness under pressure that provided an antidote for those other times when they were incapable of making their superiority count. 

Although there wasn’t quite as much counter-attacking as one would have liked (thank God for Israel Dagg!), the football has been generally entertaining, unlike in 2007.

The refereeing has been generally pretty good, with a better level of consistency than usual. In particular, as a father with an 11-year-old son playing the game, I want to thank Alain Rolland for what I consider the best and bravest decision by a rugby referee that I can remember in the sending-off of Sam Warburton.

We’ve seen instances of referees ‘bottling it’ under the pressure of a big occasion (Schalk Burger v Luke Fitzgerald, anyone?), but Rolland was decisive and correct in his decision irrespective of the occasion or how early it was in the match.

As a viewer, I wasn’t that happy at the time as I wanted Wales to win, the game to be good, and I didn’t think that it was malicious. But none of those were real factors.

There was evidence that, when the playing pitch was level, the Tier 2 and 3 nations had closed the gap on the Tier 1 nations. And while it is overdue, it is welcome that those same Tier 1 nations have accepted the prospect of playing midweek matches. 

There were plenty of great matches that were fun to watch (Ireland v Australia, South Africa v Wales, Wales v France, France v New Zealand, South Africa v Australia, Scotland v Argentina, Tonga v France to name but a few).

There were lots of subplots – New Zealand’s out-half situation, Richie McCaw’s foot, their collective mental state, England’s tortuous demise and daft stuff off the pitch, France being more French than ever before, Australia’s ability to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, Wales’ youthful exuberance; the last chance for Ireland’s golden generation, Ronan O’Gara! 

It’s been as good as it gets. Nearly.