Ireland came into the 2023 Rugby World Cup as the number one side in the world and very well fancied to go all the way and lift the trophy. They had long been among the very best teams in world rugby and headed to France on the back of a Six Nations Grand Slam and, before that, a series win away in New Zealand. They had every right to expect to go far in the World Cup and many experts saw them as the outright favourites.
Things started well too, as they hammered Romania by 82-8 in their opening game and easily saw off Tonga too (59-16). A much tougher test was up next as they faced another of the strongly fancied sides, defending champions South Africa. They passed that exam with flying colours, beating the South Africans 13-8 and would go on to make it four wins out of four by beating Scotland to top Group B.
In the quarters they faced New Zealand but were expected by many to win. This game pitted together two teams with very different World Cup records. The Kiwis have the best record at the tournament, with three wins from four appearances in the final. In contrast, Ireland had never made it past the quarter finals. In fact, as we shall see, the quarter final almost seems to be their home when it comes to the World Cup but this year they seemed destined to move to their dream home. Or at the very least move to the bigger house with an appearance in the semis.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be, and in their talisman’s last game, they fell just short. Johnny Sexton has been a great servant to Irish rugby but at the age of 38 this was to be his last hurrah and he, and his teammates, hoped he could go out on a high. He has scored over 1,100 points for his nation, pulling on the green jersey 119 times but that 119th, and final appearance, was a 28-24 defeat to the All Blacks. And, so Ireland’s wait to get past the quarters goes on.
Summary of Ireland’s World Cup Results
|Year||Hosts||Stage of Elimination|
|1987||Australia and New Zealand||QF|
|1991||Ireland (Belfast and Dublin), Scotland, Wales, England, France||QF|
As you can see, amazingly, Ireland have made the quarter finals of the World Cup eight times from 10 tournaments without ever having made the semis. On the one hand, that can be viewed as remarkable consistency but on the other, all Ireland supporters and those that have played for them over the years know they should have gone further.
Ireland’s Best Performance at the Rugby World Cup
The format of the competition has changed many times over the years and so direct comparison is not necessarily straightforward. Clearly, on one level, their “best” performance has happened jointly, eight times, when they have advanced to the last eight. However, on many occasions, especially in the earlier editions of the World Cup, this was as the runner-up, sometimes in a group of just four teams, when they only managed to win two games, at most.
As we have seen, in 2023 they won all four pool games to top their group before being eliminated, narrowly, by the sport’s most iconic team. But in 2011 and 2015 they also won all four of their group matches, so let us now look more closely at those World Cups.
2011: Beat Australia to Top Pool C but Quarters Curse Strikes Against Wales
Ireland were pitted in a tough group against Australia, Italy, USA and Russia and they were not at their best when only beating the Americans 22-10 in their opening game. Australia warmed up with a 32-6 win over Italy and were favourites against the Irish when the rivals met in Auckland in the second round of pool clashes.
However, Ireland, coached by Declan Kidney at the time, caused an upset by seeing off the Aussies 15-6 in a tough, low-scoring encounter at Eden Park. Sexton was the key man for Ireland, scoring nine of their points, including a drop goal.
A routine victory over Russia followed, before a good showing against Italy, where they won 36-6, saw them top the group with a 100% record. A quarter final with Wales was up next and the Irish would have fancied their chances against the team that were runners-up in Pool D, having lost to South Africa 17-16 in that group’s decisive game. Ireland had finished above Wales at the 2011 Six Nations but it wasn’t to be in Wellington as they were swept aside easily enough, losing 22-10 to a Wales side who would be beaten in the semis by eventual champions France.
2015: Argentina Caused QF Upset to Dampen Irish Hopes
The 2015 RWC was officially hosted by England, although bizarrely eight games, including Ireland’s quarter final, were played in Wales! In a controversial move both the (unofficial) co-hosts were drawn together, England and Wales joined by Australia, Fiji and Uruguay in a real group of death that embarrassingly saw official hosts England eliminated.
Back to Ireland though, and they were in Pool D, along with defending champions France. The group would be decided by its final clash, Ireland and France meeting at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. It was Ireland who prevailed, winning 24-9 to complete a perfect four-from-four pool phase. Earlier wins over Canada, Romania and Italy meant they would face the second-placed team from Pool C, Argentina.
Once again Ireland knew they had a great chance of making their first RWC semi final but on the day Argentina were too strong. The South Americans had shown their credentials by easily beating Georgia, Tonga and Namibia and by pushing the All Blacks relatively close in a 26-16 defeat. In front of over 72,000 fans in Wales, Argentina overcame what was almost a home crowd to win 43-20, a sobering loss for the Irish.