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SPIRO ZAVOS: The moment I knew Irish curse would continue, and why Southern giants still rule the Cup

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Expert
19th October, 2023
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Ireland were not literally or even metaphorically hung or drawn by the New Zealand at Stade de France. But they were quartered, as in being booted out of the tournament by a brilliant All Blacks team 28-24.

An enduring sequence of quarter-final failures at RWC tournaments has now become The Curse for Ireland.

Tim Horan made the point that quarter-finals are the most important round of the RWC because success ensures the winning teams access to the last two weeks of play, with semi-finals and a third-place playoff possibilities, and the final for the last two teams standing.

The Stade de France result, in a RWC tournament Ireland expected to win, a prediction supported by virtually the heavyweight rugby pundits, is now the eighth lost RWC quarter-final the men in green have experienced from eight attempts.

To add to this misery, the last time Ireland even led its opponents in a RWC quarter-final was back in 1995.

Ireland is the only one of the other so-called Home Unions (Wales, Scotland, England) that has never progressed to a RWC semi-final.

Compare this record with England’s.

In this RWC 2023, a lacklustre England side, with a newish coach Steve Borthwick, who replaced Eddie Jones, defeated Fiji at Marseilles 30-24, in its quarter-final match. It now faces South Africa in the semi-finals.

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This is the sixth RWC quarter-final match England has won, out of the nine they have played.

England, also, are the only Northern Hemisphere team that has won the Webb Ellis trophy with their famous triumph in RWC 2003.

There are various reasons presumably why Ireland have been defeated in all its RWC quarter-final matches. We cannot canvas them all here. But I think I can pinpoint the reason why The Curse struck this time.

Peter O’Mahony of Ireland looks dejected following the team’s defeat during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between Ireland and New Zealand at Stade de France on October 14, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Just follow me with this because it is slightly complicated.

The draw for RWC 2023 was correctly described by rugby pundits as ‘bizarre.’

The top four teams in the world, Ireland, South Africa, France and New Zealand, were loaded into the same half of the draw, in Pool A and Pool B.

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In the pool rounds Ireland played South Africa and France played New Zealand.

The losers of these Big Four pool round matches played the winner in their respective quarter-finals.

The way this draw worked out meant that in the quarter-finals, Ireland, a winner of their pool round match against South Africa, played New Zealand, a loser in their quarter-final against France: with France playing South Africa in their quarter final.

This, in turn, meant that two of the four teams that had a good chance of winning the RWC 2023 tournament would be eliminated in the quarter-finals.

In effect, the quarter-finals for this 2023 RWC tournament became the semi-finals.

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Now, here is the interesting part. Both of the defeated pool round teams, New Zealand and South Africa, defeated their undefeated pool round opponents, Ireland and France.

My take from all of this is that behind Ireland’s loss to the All Blacks was the hard-fought, energy-sapping and the excessive physical and mental effort the men in green invested in their pool round victory over the Springboks.

In that match Ireland played all its cards – its retaining-the-ball tactics, its energy, its will-to-win, its muscular defence and its emotional capital – to defeat the Springboks 13-8.

In terms of the way RWC tournaments work, a team can lose a pool round and still win the tournament. The Springboks did this in RWC 2019. And with its victory over France is in the hunt to repeat its triumph of four years ago.

By playing all its cards in its pool round match against the Springboks, Ireland, in my opinion, won the poker hand pool round. But this win set the team up for losing a big cash out of a quarter-final win. It was, as the ancients would put it, a pyrrhic victory for the ages.

The Ireland that played the All Blacks at Stade de France in the knock-out quarter-final did not have the same flair and hardness, both mental and physical, as the All Blacks. They were a team that seemed to play by numbers more than passion. They were rote rather than inventive in adapting to the circumstances unfolding during the game.

Ireland never played the ball wide in the match even though the All Blacks were operating a tight defensive line. Johnny Sexton did not try even one of his trademark and deadly effective loop plays. The team was off- the-pace both on attack and defence. Where were the killer plays they have routinely pulled off in Tests over the last four years?

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Stephen Jones, never one to praise the All Blacks, explained Ireland’s problems in trying to win the match this way: ‘Ireland probably had the majority of possession, and they let nobody down, but on the day they seemed to be up against a team who were tactically and probably technically superior, and Johnny Sexton at fly-half simply could not conjure up a winning score as the game went on and on.’

I believe that while the All Blacks did not throw their match against France, they did not, as Ireland did against the Springboks, throw/reveal their full arsenal of attacking and defensive plays and expend all their physical and mental energy against up pumped-up France in the RWC 2023 opening match.

Pieter-Steph Du Toit and Handre Pollard of South Africa celebrate Quarter Final victory over France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

In other words, they weren’t greatly worried if they lost.

They anticipated that Ireland would defeat the Springboks. This meant the All Blacks would have to play Ireland in the quarter-final, rather than the Springboks. My hunch is that the All Blacks coaching staff were more comfortable playing Ireland than they were about countering the Springboks early in the finals.

In the back of the mind of the All Blacks coaching staff (and please remember I am surmising this) was the thought that Ireland’s two successive wins against New Zealand in 2022 were helped significantly by yellow cards that were dished out against the All Blacks.

In fact, in a media conference after the All Blacks victory over Ireland at Stade de France, coach Ian Foster talked about the two yellow cards dished out to his players by referee Wayne Barnes (the referee for the third New Zealand – Ireland Test in 2022) and how Ireland seemed to magically conjure yellow cards against their opponents from willing referees.

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And on the All Blacks coaching staff was Joe Schmidt, the former Ireland coach who started that team on its road from a middle tier rugby nation to a world power.

It was under Schmidt that Sexton became a world class number 10. Schmidt, presumably, gave the All Blacks inside knowledge of the attacking plays Sexton liked to use. And, more importantly, how to counter these plays.

Schmidt’s game plan for Ireland, too, when he coached them remained essentially Farrell’s game plan, There was a slight difference in that Farrell, a former rugby league hardman, has given a toughness and abrasive quality to Ireland’s defence.

To put all of this theorising into some match play context, it is curious that against France the All Blacks invariably kicked long and played Beauden Barrett often as the first playmaker.

In my comments after this match, I argued that the All Blacks could not win the RWC tournament or indeed even get out of the quarter-finals if this pattern of using Barrett was continued.

Against Ireland, interestingly, there was an entirely different strategy. Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga kicked short-high balls for their forwards to regather, and Beauden Barrett and Mo’unga kicked lobs over the top of the Irish defenders for themselves to grab and carry on the attack.

Ardie Savea of New Zealand celebrates scoring his team’s second try during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between Ireland and New Zealand at Stade de France on October 14, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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Beauden Barrett was kept out of the first receiver role and Mo’unga was given the major responsibility for calling the plays. Mo’unga had the role of playmaker and Barrett the role of an attacking third winger-fullback.

Before the tournament started the South African rugby greats, Jean de Villiers and Victor Matfield, predicted that France would play the Springboks and the All Blacks would play Ireland in the quarter-finals. Did they reveal a master plan from the Springboks camp?

Anyway, as President Joe Biden famously said about a different situation, ‘Son of a gun, what do you think happened?’

For the record, the All Blacks loss to France was their first ever RWC pool round loss. It was noticeable that the All Blacks coaching staff seemed to accept the loss with calmness rather than any sense of panic.

As for RWC quarter-finals, the All Blacks record is now nine matches and eight wins. The one loss was in RWC 2007 when France pulled off an upset victory at Cardiff 20 -18.

And here we come to another part of the puzzle of the All Blacks remarkable revival of form against Ireland.

The referee for that Cardiff match was a callow newcomer, Wayne Barnes.

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A report of the match by Pro Sport noted that the All Blacks were ‘hammered in the penalty count by a young English referee, Wayne Barnes.’

I reported in The Roar about this upset loss by the All Blacks that ‘remarkably, Wayne Barnes, did not give the All Blacks a single penalty in the final 60 minutes of play,’ even though they were camped inside the French 22 for most of that time hammering away at the try line.

I pointed out, too, that ‘Barnes and his assistant referee, Jonathan Kaplan, who was metres away from the incident, missed an obvious forward pass in the build-up to France’s second try, the match-winner.’

That loss remains deeply entrenched in the New Zealand psyche. Many New Zealanders have never forgiven Wayne Barnes for his refereeing on that day.

Referee Wayne Barnes looks on during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between New Zealand and Uruguay at Parc Olympique on October 05, 2023 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Referee Wayne Barnes. (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

But, and this is the important point, the All Blacks have moved on from RWC 2007. They acknowledge – rightly – that Barnes is now one of the best referees in world rugby. He knows the names of the rugby players, he speaks French to the French players, he is accurate with his decisions and is not afraid to make tough calls.

The All Blacks showed this respect early in the quarter-final when the Man of the Match, Ardie Savea, was penalised by Barnes for a mistake in the ruck.

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Savea looked up at Barnes as he clamoured to his feet, got an explanation from Barnes, nodded his head in agreement and got back into position for the next play. Savea then went on to make several crucial turn-overs that passed the Barnes scrutiny.

At scrum time, too, Barnes correctly ruled against the Ireland front row’s boring in and wheeling the scrum tactics, decisions that gave the All Blacks some early and welcome penalties.

He was just as accurate and tough, though, on the All Blacks giving them two yellow cards, one for collapsing a maul on their try-line and another to Aaron Smith for sticking out an arm that prevented an Ireland pass going to hand during an attacking movement. This second yellow card seemed a bit harsh but was seemingly imposed on Barnes by the TMO.

Minutes into full time, after Ireland had launched the most determined attack in RWC history with 37 phases to enforce a winning try, Barnes, with great integrity given the feverish Irish supporters cheering on their side’s onslaught, awarded a turnover penalty to Sam Whitelock.

The decision meant that the All Blacks only had to kick the ball into touch legally, that is with an initial tap, and the match was over.

Barnes’ refereeing performance, in fact, prompted the former England player Nic Easter to praise Barnes this way: ‘Wayne Barnes doesn’t miss a thing. He has been able to spot things that other referees might overlook, His performance played a crucial role in an incredible game.’

The reaction to decisions made by Barnes from some of Ireland’s supporters at the Stade de France and on social media, in the context of what a superb display of the refereeing craft he gave, was disgraceful.

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It was matched, unfortunately, by Sexton’s verballing of Barnes throughout the match. The contrast between this behaviour by Sexton and Savea’s spoke a lot about the mental strength of the two players.

Even when Barnes explained correctly, on one occasion, that Bundee Aki’s head had not been hit or even touched by an All Black player, Sexton continued to badger him to give a penalty to Ireland. It was as if Sexton was blaming the referee for the way the match was turning against Ireland.

I always think that when players start blaming the referee for their own poor play they are well on the road to a defeat.

It seemed to me, too, as if the Irish feverish fervour for a quarter-final victory was so intense for some of the team’s players and supporters that the normal good grace of the Ireland team and its supporters was put on hold for the game.

It was disappointing, for instance, for anyone who has a regard for the traditions of rugby that the crowd, Ireland supporters in their tens of thousands, deliberately drowned out the chanting of the All Blacks haka, a rugby ritual that goes back to the Wales – New Zealand first Test at Cardiff Arms Park in 1905.

Irish crowds are famous for their respect for opposition sides, even to imposing a cone of silence around the ground when there are kicks at goal.

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So it was out of character that their enthusiasm for their side at the Stade de France saw them show such disrespect for Ireland’s opponents on the day.

Where Ireland go next in the world rankings and as a major rugby power is an intriguing question.

Coach Andy Farrell concedes that the great team he brought to this RWC tournament no longer exists.

Can he construct another great Ireland side in the next four years?

Will the small number of fully professional rugby players available for selection, about 160 of them, create a large enough pool of talent capable of continuing to win major tournaments?

We are told that the Ireland system of a handful of elite clubs, clear pathways for young players to learn how to play effective rugby through academies, a strong school competition should ensure strong numbers coming into the professional game.

There is also a great tradition of playing rugby in Dublin in the great Public Schools that goes back at least to pre-1914 days when James Joyce, of all people, wrote about the game in ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,’ admittedly expressing his character’s reluctance to get out of bed on chilly mornings to go to their rugby practice.

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The future, it seems to me, still remains with the traditional rugby powers of South Africa and New Zealand with their deep rugby culture, their history of success, the extensive pool of their players, their coaching excellence and their long pathways for players of ability to come through to their national teams.

The diversity of New Zealand rugby, with Maori players and increasingly Islander players being involved in national teams and in leadership positions, has always been its greatest strength.

South African rugby is flourishing, too, in terms of competitions won since the game and leadership positions were opened up to all races in the Republic.

Rieko Ioane reacts to Ireland fans

Rieko Ioane reacts to Ireland fans. (Photo by Getty Images)

This future of South African and New Zealand hegemony, of course, will always be challenged by other nations, like France, Australia, Argentina, England, Wales and Ireland, if that team can ever beat The Curse of the RWC quarter-final.

The hard fact is that all these teams (with the exception of the Wallabies) between them have won only one Webb Ellis trophy since Rugby World Cup tournaments started in 1987.

Three of the four winners of last weekend’s quarter-finals, after all, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina, are the dreaded (by the North anyway) Southern Hemisphere part of the rugby power zone.

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At the beginning of the RWC 2023 tournament several British rugby writers fearlessly predicted that the semi-finals could include, for the first time, all Northern Hemisphere teams.

This brings me to my punch line to sum up RWC 2023 results so far in the tournament, a joke that is doing the rounds of rugby tragics:

‘Rugby is a simple game. 30 men chase a ball for 80 minutes, and at the end, a Southern Hemisphere team wins the World Cup.’

Boom, boom.

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