How much further can Joe Schmidt bring Ireland?
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How much further can Joe Schmidt bring Ireland?

IT IS the hope that kills you, the idea that at last they had discovered a way to crack the code.

It’s the rise in the world rankings, the conquests of six of the other seven sides in the quarter-finals within a 12-month period that brought about the false belief that this time, in the eighth staging of a World Cup, it would finally happen for Ireland.

Instead, the usual happened.

Ireland’s sixth appearance at the World Cup quarter-finals brought a sixth straight defeat at this stage of the competition.

The surprise is that we’re surprised, because this was a result we all should have seen coming, not just because Argentina are better than we initially thought, but also because Ireland aren’t quite as good as they were built up to be.

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Had it been a different cast who appeared on the quarter-final stage last Sunday then evidently there could have been a different narrative. Yet as the weeks passed and the injuries mounted, it became clear they were missing one leader too many.

No Paul O’Connell, no Johnny Sexton, no Jared Payne, no Sean O’Brien and no Peter O’Mahony equated to no guidance.

Jamie Heaslip was left to carry the burden practically on his own with just Rory Best and Rob Kearney available to lend their support. And while Best fulfilled his duties admirably, the pressure had an overwhelming effect on Heaslip and Kearney.

They weren’t the only ones to suffer. Ian Madigan, heroic against the French, was anything but on Sunday.

Iain Henderson, the man handed the responsibility of taking over the baton from O’Connell, chose the worst moment possible to feel the heat. He was average, which is one level above where Devin Toner was. And while Jordi Murphy delivered a try, he didn’t deliver an O’Brien type performance. Best aside, none of the Irish pack delivered.

Nor was the Irish backline capable of bailing them out. Having reached levels of excellence against the French, they dipped to mediocrity last weekend. Was this the same team who had conceded fewer than 40 points in four World Cup games prior to last Sunday? In name, it was, but in reality, things had changed.

Having answered every question France could pose, they were clueless when it came to the Argentinean round of the quiz last Sunday. A 23-point defeat was a fair reflection of a game where Argentina were strong and Ireland were weak – in the head, in the tackle, at the breakdown, in the endgame.

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Could it have been different had O’Connell, Sexton, O’Brien, O’Mahony and Payne been around? You can bet your bottom dollar it would have been.

You’d have pointed to their leadership – O’Connell’s specialist subject and qualities Payne and O’Brien possess in an understated way. You’d have pointed to the control Sexton provides, the aggression O’Mahony brings, the hard edge O’Brien and O’Connell possess.

You’d have reflected on Argentina’s opening two tries and you’d have sworn it would never have happened under O’Connell’s watch. You’d have considered the impact O’Brien would have had from the start, and the extra dimension Henderson might have had from the bench.

Most of all, you’d have considered a win to be possible, perhaps probable. You’d certainly have predicted a closer contest and wouldn’t have travelled home questioning the team’s big-game mentality or wondering where Irish rugby goes from here.

Three months from now they will be engaging in another Six Nations campaign, aiming for a third straight victory in the competition. Yet it is hard to see it coming.

O’Connell’s departure, coupled with O’Driscoll’s from a year ago, leaves a vacuum there. And Heaslip can’t be expected to fill the void on his own. Best is getting older, Mike Ross is getting slower while Toner is getting stale.

What Sunday provided wasn’t just a reminder of the past – five previous quarter-finals had also ended in five straight defeats – but also a glimpse of the future.

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Without O’Connell, Ireland don’t have on-field direction. Without five of their best players, they don’t have the depth to cope.

Hence Sunday’s defeat and hence the reason why Joe Schmidt, if he was career-hungry and selfish, would be wise to look abroad for alternative employment options because he is reaching the stage where he can’t do much more with this team.

Winning back-to-back Six Nations titles, against opposition whose limitations were exposed in this World Cup, is all well and good but to achieve rugby immortality, you need to be doing it on the biggest stage.

Yet again, Ireland didn’t. And so their army of supporters who claimed ownership of Cardiff last weekend were forced into a sorry retreat. The Welsh own their capital city again, after losing it to the most good natured of invaders for 24 hours.

If only the passion and colour of supporters could decide World Cups, because if this was the case Ireland would be global champions.

Instead, we depend on players to determine results. And the ones Ireland put on the field last Sunday were honest and brave but ultimately not good enough.