State of the Nation: Can Ireland rebuild after more Rugby World Cup misery?

Colin Newboult
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell and former captain Johnny Sexton, and star centre Bundee Aki.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell and former captain Johnny Sexton, and star centre Bundee Aki.

Now that the dust has settled on another memorable Rugby World Cup, we bring you our State of the Nations pieces, continuing with Andy Farrell’s Ireland.

It was a tournament of conflicting emotions for the Irishmen. On the one hand, they should have few regrets. While previous World Cups have seen them exit with a whimper, this 2023 outfit were anything but timid.

They were ultimately the only team to beat the eventual champions, South Africa, and their performance against an inspired New Zealand side in the quarter-finals was absolutely superb. However, that 28-24 loss has left them agonising over those two horrible words, ‘what’ and ‘if’.

The records will show that once again, Ireland have failed to make it past the last-eight and, in the immediate aftermath of the defeat to the All Blacks, Irish fans no doubt questioned whether they will ever make it into the semi-finals. It was a brutal way for a brilliant team to see their World Cup end.

Tournament summary

Ireland, more often than not, have disappointed when reaching the global tournament, irrespective of their build-up, so the opening two matches were telling. Even though they faced the weakest two opponents in Pool B, the way the Irishmen dispatched Romania and Tonga was hugely impressive.

It hinted at a side that were genuine contenders, but they needed a big victory to make that a realistic proposition. That duly came in the encounter with the Springboks as they edged to a 13-8 triumph, despite some early lineout wobbles.

That match really brought the competition to life. As ‘Zombie’ blared out of the speakers and the many Irish fans in the Stade de France belted out the chorus, it provided one of the World Cup’s most memorable moments.

Farrell’s charges also had momentum, which they took into the Scotland clash. The Six Nations champions swatted aside the Scots with relative ease to set up a quarter-final with the All Blacks in Paris.

They went in as favourites, and the Stade de France was at fever pitch as the supporters roared their team on, but Ireland just could not quite get over the line. It was one of the tournament’s great matches, with the final play – a marathon 37-phase Irish attack which summed up a breathless encounter – an apt way to end it. Unfortunately for Farrell and his side.

Standout players

The first place to start is no doubt Bundee Aki, arguably the player of the tournament for the way he performed for the country. He has always been a very good player, but he well and truly entered world-class territory during this World Cup campaign. Opponents were unable to stop the powerhouse as Aki continually made ground with ball in hand, while he also impressed in defence and with his decision-making with ball in hand. He was rewarded for his efforts by being nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year.

Outside of Aki, there were a number of excellent performers, but Hugo Keenan was just slightly out in front. An ever-present under Farrell, Keenan is incredibly reliable under the high ball and rarely, if ever, drops it when competing in the air. When you add that to his attacking game, where he has the ability to wriggle out of tackles, the Leinster man is one of the best full-backs around.

We’ve had one Connacht player and another from Leinster, but we now head to Limerick and Munster for the next standout individual in the form of Tadhg Beirne. The back-five forward was prominent against Romania and Tonga, but the best players stepped up in the big moments, and he was excellent against the Springboks and All Blacks. Like Aki, Beirne was absolutely mammoth against New Zealand and was unfortunate to be on the losing team.

Statistic leaders

On a purely individual basis, you can’t really look past Aki, who was the joint-third top try-scorer with five – and the highest non back three player – and was only second to Ardie Savea (82) in terms of carriers (81). He was also fourth on clean breaks – again the best non-wing – and was in the top 30 in for off-loads.

As a team, Ireland also appear high up in the attacking stats, with them joint-second on tries scored (30), behind the All Blacks, and fourth for offloads (47). They also made plenty of clean breaks, with Farrell’s charges joint-fifth on 44, but that was staggeringly half the amount of New Zealand, who operated on a different level to the rest.

Success story

Simply the fact that, in most ways, they did themselves justice. Of course, there will be regrets, which we touch on below, but ultimately, Ireland finally performed at a World Cup. It was fantastic to see the verve they have played with throughout the past 18 months be in evidence at the global tournament.

Farrell has plenty to be positive about going into 2024, with the core of the squad staying around heading into the next Six Nations campaign. Granted, they will be without Johnny Sexton, while some of the XV are on the wrong side of 30, but the Irish are producing players that can slot in seamlessly. Leinster’s young lock Joe McCarthy is evidence of that, having made an outstanding impact in the quarter-final, and there are more like him.

Main regret

Damn you Jordie Barrett, which is no doubt what Ireland fans have said several times over following the end of their campaign. Ultimately, there were small errors throughout, which contributed to their quarter-final defeat, but it was Barrett’s intervention late on that won the match for the All Blacks.

The centre somehow managed to get underneath the ball when an Irish maul was charging towards the line, holding it up and leading to a goal-line drop-out, which duly released the pressure. Had they scored that, then Ireland likely win the game and take themselves into the World Cup final, with only Argentina standing in their way in the last-four. Those are the small margins in which major competitions are decided.


Ireland v Romania (won 82-8)
Ireland v Tonga (won 59-16)
Ireland v South Africa (won 13-8)
Ireland v Scotland (won 36-14)
Ireland v New Zealand (lost 24-28)

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