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Neil Francis: Failing to cope with pressure cost us victory

Pressure, real pressure, I was told, was the wife, the girlfriend and the mortgage all a month late. What we witnessed last Saturday morning was an Irish team succumbing to pressure.

In sport, the one great unquantifiable element is pressure, how teams deal with it, how they apply it, how they react to it, how they absorb it, fundamentally how they cope with something that is invisible yet tangible.

A few weeks ago, I wrote in this paper that if Declan Kidney could bring his team to the quarter-finals with form, momentum, confidence and a discernible game plan and be in a position where all his players were fit and available for selection, then you could classify him as a genius.

Ireland’s coach managed to do that. After a journey of 1,000 steps, we had just taken our 999th and we were about to go with a great deal of certainty into uncharted waters.

We are, though, despite very recent domestic success, still unable to string a series of victories together, a series of wins which require that psychologically we are 10pc better than we were in our last performance – and until we can overcome this arithmetic progression we will still fail at this, in the greatest rugby competition on the planet.

It is hard to gauge how or why the team was able to bring itself psychologically to the boil – how do you apportion blame? Coaching ticket or players? The truth will set you free and the truth is Ireland were so far below the benchmark of resoluteness and steely determination which they set in the Italian game.

Often this Ireland team are slow starters and their application and ability to deal with the onslaught which came in the first few minutes said a lot about where both sides were.

Let's get things clear from the start: This is not a great Welsh side, but they outwitted us and tactically had their game plan ready to play Ireland from days out before the teams even arrived in Wellington.

A good start was a pre-requisite to plant a bit of uncertainty into the Irish ranks and Ireland, with five leaders giving the team an advantage of the ability of being able to think on its feet, just weren't quite ready for what the Welsh threw at them in the first few minutes in the New Zealand capital.

Champions get things right |from the start and that early try discommoded Ireland to the degree that whatever their game plan was it went out the window.

The way Wales played, you would have to ask the question was this Ireland in disguise? They played very much the way Ireland have played over the past six or seven years, except defensively they were on a different level.

Three times in the first half, Ireland went for the lineout maul from penalties – with the wind swirling it probably was the right decision – but three times that Ireland went to the well they came away thirsty.

It was the static versus the dynamic, and every time Wales succeeded in stopping Ireland or turned them over at ruck time, it fortified them.

You have to ask the question: if Wales hadn't scored that early try and Ireland – as is their won’t – patiently tried to feel their way into the game, would the outcome have been any different?

You always got |the sense that there was a measure of desperation in Ireland’s chase of a mere seven-point deficit, but the harder they chased it the more disorganised they became.

You also got the sense that the |bad performances were coming irrespective of how the Welsh played. You suspected that Ronan O'Gara |was playing in a red jersey, such was Rhys Priestland's easy time on the ball and his unpressured touch finders which killed Ireland.

In stark contrast, O'Gara knocked the ball dead three times for costly scrum backs, how can you reconcile his performance with the one he gave against Italy?

Gordon D’Arcy, Donncha O'Callaghan Keith Earls, Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy all played poorly. The rest performed all below par, with the shining exception of the captain, who once again seemed to be the only man on the pitch who knew what was at stake.

The Welsh had spent three weeks in Spala in Poland, but the fitness work there sustained Wales and they were able to keep their defensive effort going for the full 80.

Sam Warburton (inset) made 19 tackles, turned the ball over five times and did a huge amount of damage to Ireland at ruck time.

His malign influence on the ground had a retardant effect on any quick ball that Ireland were able to generate. His partner, Dan Lydiate, had 24 tackles and no penalties against him.

There were no passengers on the Welsh ship, they were all crew and you could never countenance having someone like Gavin Henson in a side like this where their work ethic and their team ethos was everything.

Wales bled themselves dry at the breakdown and it was born out of desire. It's a simple thing, they wanted it more.

The conviction that brought Wales this success might or might not prevail against the French and it is doubtful, if they had got through, whether Ireland would have been able to raise it to play the French.

But the cold, damp reality is that we will never know and, as I returned home on Saturday evening disillusioned and disappointed, I flicked on the television to see what else was going on in the world and caught five seconds of the Munster vs the Ospreys Rabodirect Pro 12 game.

It is an unedifying end to what could have been a glorious campaign and most of Ireland's heroes will be back playing bread and butter stuff long before they were due to.