They’ve done it before, so can they do it again? Ireland head into their quarter-final showdown against the All Blacks with recent history on their side. Two of the last three meetings between these giants have seen Joe Schmidt’s men emerge victorious – the first coming in Chicago three years ago, followed by the Dublin Test last year. For all their trials and tribulations at this Rugby World Cup, Ireland will know that this is mission possible.
More assuringly for Schmidt, 12 of those players who surged to glory at the Aviva Stadium 11 months ago take to the Tokyo turf this weekend. Conor Murray and centre Robbie Henshaw missed that encounter due to injury but both will be on hand this Saturday, with the Irish more or less operating at full strength – excluding Bundee Aki, whose red against Samoa has ruled him out of the rest of the tournament.
So far, so good. But despite Ireland’s recent exploits against New Zealand, this World Cup has demonstrated that the men in green aren’t the side they were in 2016 or 2018. There are, of course, some qualities that have endured: the iron defence (Ireland have conceded just two tries at this tournament), the organisation and structure, the assured kicking game, the attacking prowess of the likes of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls.
But at times here in Japan, the side has felt like it's been missing something distinctively, well, Irish. The blooded aggression. The zip and fizz. The fear factor. In the win over Russia – despite the convincing 35-0 scoreline – there was no firebrand rugby, no fluency, no flair. It was laboured and error-strewn – and this against a team which, for 20 minutes of the match, was one man down.
It was a similar story against the Japanese. Despite a bright start, as was the case in the Russia clash, Ireland were guilty of taking their foot off the pedal. The hosts made sure to punish such insouciance, their charged surges down the flanks and ferocity at the breakdown leaving the Irish spinning. Any such lapses in concentration during tomorrow’s showdown will be ruthlessly exploited by the All Blacks.
Nonetheless, there is optimism among the side. Talisman Johnny Sexton – whose absence from the Russia and Japan matches can perhaps explain his team’s rough patches – is confident that the Irish are peaking at the right time.
“We’ve been building pretty well apart from that poor 60 minutes against Japan; everything else has pretty much gone to plan,” said Sexton earlier this week. “We haven’t hit our best performance yet and we need to get close to that to get the right result on Saturday.”
As for criticism that Ireland are struggling to return to the heights of 2018, during which the side consolidated their status as the best team on the planet, the fly-half is unconvinced.
“There’s been some negativity around us and we’d feel that’s been pretty strange,” he said. “I’m hoping that having lost a pool game that we’ve got that quarter-final performance out of our system that we’ve had in other tournaments.” The Irish may well believe themselves capable of felling the All Blacks, but it’ll take a monumental step-up in form to get close to knocking the world champions off their perch.
Still, Ireland aren’t the only ones who are struggling to recapture the glory of former years. New Zealand may be the bookmakers’ favourite to lift the Webb Ellis Cup next month, but there’s an undeniable sense that they are now at least beatable – which hasn’t always been the case for Steve Hansen’s men.
Their composed and controlled win over South Africa showed what they’re capable of, but they now head into this clash perhaps a little undercooked, having faced no-one of significance since that opener – though an All Blacks side operating even at room temperature remains a dangerous entity.
The two-week break that has followed since the 71-9 win over Namibia, after the Italy match was cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis, could well serve against them too. Time to fester, to mull over the endless possibilities, to scour the headlines and dwell upon what is in front won’t have been conducive to their preparations.
But matters of the mind rarely trouble the All Blacks. Their ‘soft spots’, if we can call them that, are far less subtle. Richie Mo’unga’s field kicking game at 10 will come under scrutiny. The set-piece could be another area to focus on. New Zealand’s starting tight five can be matched in terms of physicality, with Brodie Retallick perhaps a figure to target given his recent injury and limited game time in Japan.
The All Blacks’ dual playmaker approach could equally help Ireland’s cause. Former Irish coach Eddie O’Sullivan said this week that having Mo’unga at No 10 would allow Schmidt’s men to look after their own territory better. “We probably play our wings high and take away the space in the corners,” he said. “I think you can do that against Richie Mo’unga, I’m not sure you can get away with it against Beauden Barrett as much.”
He added: “I’m really happy about Barrett being at 15 because I don’t think he’s going to get his hands on the ball as much. He’s a massive catalyst for New Zealand in attack. He can really cause problems when he’s on the ball.
“It’s practically impossible to bring him into the game as much as Richie Mo’unga will be.”
With Barrett at 15, that could nullify the threat posed by Murray and Sexton’s high balls; after all, why hand possession back to your opponents’ most potent player? But with rainfall expected for the match, the Irish need to keep their options open and their game plan flexible.
The breakdown will similarly come under the spotlight. Officiating at this World Cup has proven costly for a number of sides that have found themselves on the wrong side of a referee’s interpretation. The All Blacks will know that they’ll be walking a dangerous line if they try to pull the tricks of the past over Nigel Owens tomorrow. Assuming they can rediscover their bite on this particular battlefront, with Peter O’Mahony far from his best in recent weeks, Ireland could well use the current climate to their advantage in drawing crucial penalties.
After speculation whether these two teams would meet in Japan, the stage is now set. In one corner, a side that knows what it takes to get under the All Blacks’ skin but which heads into this match on the back of a flawed group campaign. In the other, the three-time world champions who remain an exhilarating force of nature, but nonetheless are without the aura of invincibility which once hung from their shoulders. With so much riding on this, and the margins so fine in their last encounter, this clash will be nothing short of explosive. Pull up a chair and enjoy the fireworks. It’s going to be a big one.
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