Ireland’s quarterfinal curse hovers over win against Springboks
Ireland are now the overwhelming favourites to win Rugby World Cup 2023 after beating the Springboks in an epic battle in Paris. But can they kick on?
Bleary-eyed Ireland fans returned to work on Monday after a weekend celebrating their 13-8 win over South Africa as if they had won the World Cup, but those with longer memories recognised it was a little early to start planning the Dublin bus parade.
Hovering in the background is Ireland’s quarterfinal curse; their spectacular failure to have ever won a knockout game in the history of the tournament, even when going into that phase on the back of massive pool wins.
“We’ve been there, done it, topped the pool and then lost,” winger Tommy Bowe, who played in the 2011 and 2015 quarterfinal defeats told the BBC. “And to be honest those two quarterfinals were probably more ‘winnable’ than this time.”
In 2011 Ireland surprised Australia 15-6 at Eden Park to top their pool and earn a quarterfinal against Wales, only to lose 22-10.
Four years later France were their big pool rivals and they beat them convincingly 24-9 in Cardiff, but were then blown away 43-20 by Argentina in the last eight.
It was a different route, with the same end game, in 2019 when Ireland arrived at the tournament as the world number one but were shocked 19-12 by Japan. Second place in the pool came with consequences – New Zealand – and a 46-14 thrashing.
This year, when they are riding an extraordinary wave of success and fully deserving of their number one status, they face a likely quarterfinal as daunting as any of their previous tournaments – probably New Zealand, but possibly France, in Paris.
Their form means they should fear nobody. Saturday’s victory was a third in a row against the Springboks, they have won a series in New Zealand, won three in a row against Australia, four against England and took a Six Nations grand slam by ending France’s 14-game unbeaten run this year.
Job not done
But that historical failure to kick on at a World Cup is always there.
Flyhalf Johnny Sexton has suffered first hand and was doing all he could in the aftermath of Saturday’s victory not to get too far ahead.
“We have to keep our feet on the ground and also strive for a better game,” he said.
“We’ve had some big wins in pool stages before. [This win] is right up there, but we’ve got to make it count now. We’ve got to back it up against Scotland and make sure we do the business to get out of the pool.”
Remarkably, for all the quarterfinal talk, that is still not guaranteed as if Scotland beat Romania as expected and then somehow shock the Irish in Paris, with the right combination of bonus points, Ireland could still finish third.
That would no doubt take first place in their history of coming down to earth with a bang, but it looks an extremely unlikely scenario in a fixture where Ireland have won 12 of the last 13 stretching back nine years, and when they could still progress with a narrow defeat.
Coach Andy Farrell has spent most of the last year trying to dampen down expectations and was sticking to the script after Saturday’s win.
“It’s wonderful to win but there’s not much in it and I think the best thing about it for us is that we get to feel the intensity of a big game within this World Cup and I know what that feels like further down the line,” said the coach, who played for England in their run to the 2007 final.
“We’ve got very good at not getting too emotional but we’re concentrating on Scotland now and that’s all that matters.” Reuters/DM