OPINION: New Zealand final scoreline should never stand as final word on Ireland legacy of Joe Schmidt and Rory Best

It proved an emotional final appearance for Rory Best on Saturday in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final exit to New Zealand. Pic by INPHO.
It proved an emotional final appearance for Rory Best on Saturday in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final exit to New Zealand. Pic by INPHO.

It was a painful watch for Ireland rugby fans.

In typically merciless fashion, New Zealand dismantled and destroyed the Irish on Saturday with a ruthless seven-try demolition to leave the men in green still chasing a first Rugby World Cup knockout success.

The 46-14 victory for the defending back-to-back champions was deserved as they simply took the Irish apart in most facets of the game.

Although the setpiece held up throughout what was a depressing 80-plus minute display for Irish followers, the rest was a one-dimensional approach from the Irish, a performance lacking creativity, wrong option-taking and error-strewn.

You simply cannot make it easy for arguably the best side on the globe and who, it will now be expected, will go on to beat England in next week’s semi-final and charge on to a third successive World crown.

Ireland once again underperformed at the World Cup finals. The target set out in the IRFU strategic plan for 2019 and 2023 was a minimal of a semi-final appearance.

To do it at the ninth edition of Rugby World Cup in Japan would have secured history for this squad of players.

A victory over New Zealand on Saturday would have seen this Irish team achieve what has not been achieved in 32 years of trying - progress beyond the quarter-finals.

The loss to the All Blacks - who put on an impressive display on how to play the game - was not a surprise. Ireland had gone in as underdogs after failing to sparkle during the group stages, which included a loss to hosts Japan, effectively ending their hopes of finishing top of the pool and avoiding the champions.

There was a thought the Irish might be building into this tournament, but in reality they had peaked a year too soon for the World Cup.

In 2018, having secured a Grand Slam at the Six Nations Championship and winning a Test series against Australia, Ireland celebrated their first home victory over New Zealand, two years after having defeated them for the first time ever with a win in Chicago.

Last November after that famous win in Dublin, there was a surge of belief that Ireland could go all the way at the World Cup.

But the performances in 2019 never reached the same level and once again Ireland failed to produce when it mattered. It is a long four years to wait for another opportunity of breaking that knockout hoodoo - Ireland now having lost seven quarter-finals in nine years.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen hailed the Irish performance last November and declared them the number one side in the world - irrespective of the World Rankings at the time - throwing down the challenge that they now had to do what his side had done, live up to the expectation that goes with that tag.

Ireland failed and although they did historically hit number one officially in the rankings during 2019 a week out from the start of the World Cup, Ireland failed to deliver when it really mattered.

It was to be a disappointing end to Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt’s tenure with the IRFU as well as captain Rory Best, who was always retiring when the World Cup journey ended.

Best, joined by his three children on the pitch after the game, bowed out with 124 caps after 62 minutes and 45 seconds against the All Blacks. Clearly emotional during the pitchside post-match interview, he received another amazing ovation from the Irish fans who had watched the game in the Tokyo stadium.

You cannot plan the way your final game will go. With Ulster, Best captained the side to a disappointing Guinness PRO14 semi-final loss in Glasgow and now with Ireland, a heavy loss to the All Blacks.

But while the last game will be freshest in the memory, what Schmidt and Best have done for Irish Rugby in the last few years must be the lasting memory.

It has all been about firsts, making history, achieving great success - even if the one they both really wanted, a World Cup semi-final appearance at the least, will never happen now.

But Best truly distinguished himself as a player in the last four years, retiring as one of the greatest Ireland captains.

For Schmidt, having enjoyed those successes along with Best and the players over the past few years, his decision to stay on after the Argentina quarter-final loss in 2015 was the belief that he could take Ireland one step further.

For his term to end against his native New Zealand in the manner that it did does not really seem fair, but sport can be cruel and, as already said, you simply cannot plan how your final game will go.

Schmidt admitted he was incredibly disappointed, but in the coming days as the pain subsides hopefully what he has achieved and done for Irish Rugby will heal the wounds.

One thing about New Zealand that anyone in sport can learn from is humility.

Head coach Hansen, in his pitchside post-match interview, immediately paid tribute to Best and Schmidt, acknowledging their input into the game and what they had done for Irish Rugby over the years, before talking about his side’s performance.

While misery at the World Cup has continued for Ireland, Schmidt and Best have set the standards expected at international level, and while their dreams are over, the cornerstones are there for new head coach Andy Farrell and his future squad to continue to build on towards France 2023.

Elsewhere, Japan’s fairytale run came to an end over the weekend - although they still remain the talking point of the tournament, having captured the imagination of everyone.

The heroics of 2015 in Brighton when the Brave Blossoms stunned South Africa were not to be repeated in Tokyo on Sunday, the Boks producing a powerful and clinical display to win comfortably 26-3 in the end.

Prior to that, the way the Japanese played set the standards for the tournament, along with New Zealand - and that is as high a tribute they can get.

The Boks’ victory sets up a meeting with Wales (remember, I tipped them as a dark horse for outright victory) next weekend in the semi-finals after they won a close contest with France 20-19 - the French cause not helped by a moment of madness from Sebastien Vahaamahina, who was red-carded for elbowing Aaron Wainwright in the face when Les Bleus led 19-10 in the 48th minute.

The semi-finals will be exciting affairs, England and New Zealand pairing two sides with strong attacks while Wales and the Boks will see two of the best defensive sides go head-to-head.

It is also North v South in both - will it be Six Nations or The Rugby Championship who will win the day to go through to the final a week later?

Semi-final weekend is going to be huge!