Remember how this felt
Published 03/02/2012 | 05:00
"HALLO, what are you boyos still doing here? Thought you would have gone home by now."
It was the day after the end of Ireland's World Cup dream and a group of Irish journalists were back in Wellington's 'Cake Tin' to take in the quarter-final clash between Australia and South Africa.
When one of their Welsh colleagues, still buzzing from the previous day's (and night's) events greeted them with that lilting, sing-song accent, so perfectly suited to gentle mockery, it brought the reality of the situation crashing home.
Wales had another two weeks of World Cup involvement to go with a young, confident, expressive team who had a genuine shot at making it to their first final. Ireland? Slan abhaile.
It was not supposed to be like this. Dan Lydiate? Luke Charteris? Toby Faletau? These were Dragons for God's sake, players regularly at the end of whippings from the provinces in club competition, while Scarlets out-half Rhys Priestland, mesmeric the previous afternoon, had hardly rocked Thomond, the RDS or Ravenhill to its foundations over the previous few years.
And yet, this experimental side, drawn from Welsh clubs who had never provided a Heineken Cup winner had comprehensively outplayed a team packed with European champions.
For all the promise of the pool stages, Ireland's World Cup curse had struck again leaving them as the only member of the big eight, plus Argentina, never to have made it to the last four on rugby's biggest stage.
Wales saw us coming. They had slipped into the last eight largely under the radar and though Warren Gatland was credited with putting together a credible campaign, they were widely expected to put in a brave performance and depart with heads held high.
If they had managed to beat South Africa rather than lose narrowly in their pool game, there would have been greater hype, but all the focus was on an Irish side who had turned the tournament upside down with that win over the Tri Nations champions -- New Zealand's greatest threat.
The week before the quarter-final, in these pages under the headline 'Wales will be waiting in the long grass,' reasons for fearing the Welsh were outlined but the doom-mongering was based on a hunch rather than logic and for the match preview, it was impossible to look beyond the Irish.
Looking back, you search for differences in the build-up to the Australia, Italy and Wales games and they come screaming back at you.
Ireland were based in Auckland before facing the Wallabies and were stationed in a lakeside hotel on the industrial outskirts of New Zealand's biggest city.
While this had worked against them in Bordeaux in 2007, the difference this time around was that they were there for days rather than weeks and being cut-off worked in the squad's favour as they steeled themselves for a defining challenge.
Ireland's form in the warm-up matches and opening pool encounter against the USA had been largely wretched, while further motivation undoubtedly stemmed from palpable Wallaby arrogance, whose players struggled to name any of their opponents beyond Brian O'Driscoll.
It was the perfect psychological preparation, expertly tapped by Declan Kidney, and the stand-out moments from that wonderful night in Auckland -- Sean O'Brien's tears for the anthems, Stephen Ferris' shopping bag manoeuvre on Will Genia, Cian Healy's monstrous tackling -- told as much.
Then, before the Italy game, Nick Mallett made the fatal error of calling out the Irish front-row which gave Ireland an extra layer of determination to put the Azzurri back in their box on a night when they were superior in every department.
For the quarter-finals, Ireland had become the story. New Zealand were never going to lose to a gutsy but outmatched Argentina, England and France were playing dour muck and South Africa-Australia contests were two-a-penny through the Tri Nations.
Ireland were fresh, vibrant and seen as the greatest threat to southern hemisphere supremacy.
The squad was billeted in the heart of Wellington, readily accessible to the thousands of extra supporters who descended to witness the historical achievement of a first semi-final.
It meant the dynamic had changed completely from the pool stages. As well as the swelling support-base, hordes of extra media joined the expedition and what had once been three or four travelling hacks and a couple of bored local journos in Queenstown, became a battery of cameras and dictaphones to the point where the hotel room assigned for press conferences could barely accommodate them.
The players were engaging and entertaining, becoming the darlings of the nightly TV bulletins as they joked good-humouredly with reporters and happily posed with the many fans hovering around the hotel lobby.
Ever frank and to the point, Ronan O'Gara has since expressed his belief that the squad "fell in love with ourselves a little bit" and, while that would never have been the intention, it is easy to see how all this fawning attention could have had that subliminal effect.
Hindsight decrees that isolation would have been preferable, but, as Kidney explained this week, there was not much he could do about the situation.
"You get very little say with hotels as you go on in the tournament, there are logistical issues that come into play. You don't just replicate it and say let's go out of town," said Kidney.
"I wouldn't have any doubts about the preparation, but I think it's good that players have given their individual views on how they felt coming into it. It is something that you can't quantify."
The upshot was that when the game kicked off, Wales, with a team that the Irish players beat for kicks on a regular basis at club level, had the mental advantage. They played above themselves, their best performance of the tournament, while Ireland could not hit earlier heights.
Even when the Irish brought the score back to 10-10 just after half-time, there was never any sure sense that they would kick on and their insecurities manifested themselves in uncharacteristically poor defending for the Mike Phillips and Jon Davies tries. Four months on, the pain of that experience, a massive opportunity squandered, has not diminished.
One nagging question that will not go away, and one that was painted as a likely scenario in pre-tournament predictions, is whether Ireland would have been better served by losing to Australia and going into a quarter-final against the Springboks as complete underdogs -- the ideal scenario for Kidney to work his magic.
We will never know and that Wellington disappointment can't be completely erased until that elusive first semi-final is achieved.
Beating Wales on Sunday would help to chip away at it, but the lessons must be learned and, if Ireland's Wellington Waterloo has taught us one thing, it is that the battle starts in the mind.