Ireland and the weight of expectation


There is an advert doing the rounds on Irish television at the moment, in which Guinness, a brand with a long association with Irish rugby, gently pokes fun at the team having its hopes raised and subsequently dashed at previous World Cups.

The overall message of the advert is, however, a positive one, and it can be summed up with the paraphrase, “We think we can win this, but we won’t say it out loud lest we jinx it.”.

Ireland were not the clear betting favourites in the 2023 Rugby World Cup on the eve of the tournament, although they did move into that category after the pulsating victory over South Africa in Paris. Back in Ireland, that victory was celebrated for the milestone it was. Yes, there have been Grand Slam wins in the Six Nations, series wins over New Zealand, and other triumphs, but a victory over a team of the calibre of South Africa, the reigning champions no less, in a World Cup was something rare in the team’s history.

Ireland must address poor World Cup record

Ireland, in fact, have a horrendous record against Southern Hemisphere teams in the World Cup: One win in five over Australia, no wins in two matches against New Zealand, and just one win in four against Argentina. The match on the 23rd of September was Ireland’s first against South Africa at a World Cup, and the issue of not performing when it truly mattered weighed heavy upon the fans before the game. Now things feel somewhat different.

A victory over South Africa in a Pool Game is not the same as winning a World Cup, of course. And Ireland’s route to the Final is as tough as it gets. But the Ireland team is now facing a different kind of narrative, one of expectation. Professional sports coaches and players will often preach the old adage of “one game at a time”, and it’s usually the place of the fans to dream of finals and championship victories long before the route has been made clear. But as per the Guinness advert, the fans are, by and large, thinking the same way as Andy Farrell and his players. One game at a time, and let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

Ireland has been the underdog in world sports

It’s important to understand the Irish psyche in all this. When it comes to sport, it is a small nation. Sure, the island has produced some wonderful teams and players down the years, but being in the position as the number one ranked team in the world in any sport, hurling and Gaelic football aside, is a strange one for players and fans alike. All too often, glorious failure has dogged Irish sports teams on the grandest stage, particularly soccer, where there was a sense of not getting the rub of the green in the 1990, 1994 and 2002 FIFA World Cups.

But rugby is different. Ireland have often lost when expected to win the World Cup, notably against Argentina in 2007 and 2015. Now in 2023, Ireland are considered favourites. Sure, some might prefer France, South Africa, or New Zealand, if and when they come up against the Irish in the knockout rounds, but there will no longer be an inferiority complex. As mentioned, the bookies have acted and made Ireland favourites, albeit by a hair’s breadth. They have not done that out of a sense of loyalty. They have seen the world’s number one ranked team beat the World Champions.

The full weight of expectation is now on Ireland, perhaps for the first time in any global competition in the island’s history. It is simultaneously strange and wonderful for the fans to experience such. The team cannot go into any showdown with the top teams in the world and see themselves as plucky underdogs; they must play as champions in waiting. At this point, anything less than a maiden World Cup triumph will be deemed a failure.