Leinster’s knockout failures set worrying precedent for World Cup ambitions

Dejected Leinster players, from left, Jason Jenkins, Ross Molony, Cian Healy and Ryan Baird following defeat to La Rochelle. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Daniel SchofieldTelegraph.co.uk

As anyone who has watched their share of 1990s horror films will tell you, the thing about demons is that you can slay them, celebrate their demise but then, just before the credits roll, they will open one eye.

So it is with Ireland and their recurring case of vertigo in the World Cup knockout stage.

For the past four years, Andy Farrell has transformed the fear of heights that comes from being world No 1. Ireland have won 13 of their past 14 matches, which includes the not-inconsiderable feat of a Grand Slam and victories against every World Cup rival.

Now Ireland are running towards pressure rather than their underdog safety blanket. Like Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League champions Liverpool team, Ireland became mentality monsters.

So you could imagine Farrell’s discomfort in watching Leinster throw away a 17-0 lead against La Rochelle as all those past ghosts came flooding back at the Aviva Stadium.

As the victorious La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara magnanimously pointed out, there is a vastly different context between a Champions Cup final and a World Cup quarter-final.

Yet this is largely the same group of players – second row Ross Molony was the only member of the Leinster starting XV who is not a fully fledged Irish international – who have now lost back-to-back Champions Cup finals as well as back-to-back United Rugby Championship semi-finals.

“Over the last couple of years, any time when they had those pressure-cooker moments, it hasn't fallen their way,” Jamie Heaslip, the former Leinster and Ireland No 8, said on RTÉ.

How can doubt not creep into those same players’ minds when Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final record is brought up, which it will be frequently in the next three months. For the record it reads: losing to Australia 1987 and 1991, France 1995, Argentina 1999, France 2003, Wales 2011, Argentina 2015, New Zealand 2019. They did not get out of the group stage in 2007.

This matters. Ireland have won plenty of big matches under Farrell, but outside of the World Cup there is no substitute for the white-hot pressure of a knockout match.

There are approximately three dozen caveats that you could ascribe to Leinster’s defeat. Probably the biggest was the absence of fly-half Johnny Sexton, who characteristically still made his presence felt by haranguing the officials.

Ross Byrne, who twice hit the post with conversions, did little wrong but Sexton is precisely the mentality monster Leinster needed in the final quarter to get over the line. It is hard to imagine that Leinster would not have set up for the dropped goal when they were camped in the La Rochelle 22 with five minutes to go with Sexton on the pitch.

Yet this in itself is an issue for Farrell. Ireland have staggering depth in nearly every position but fly-half, which would not be such a problem if Sexton, recuperating from a groin tear, did not have such a chequered injury record. In 2015, Ireland’s campaign was derailed by another Sexton groin injury. Eight years on, he is just as fundamental and even more fragile.

Perhaps Leinster’s setback can serve as rocket fuel for Farrell’s great motivational qualities. Yet as much as Ireland have prospered under the Englishman, the quarter-final hump remains in the road. That hump becomes a hill when you bear in mind Ireland are likely to be facing New Zealand or France in the last eight.

Leinster’s failure in another high-stakes knockout match makes the hill seem like a mountain.

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