When it came down to the quick, it made no difference how inexperienced the All Blacks were. Their relative newbies humbled the Irish in a one-sided Rugby World Cup quarter-final that leaves the world champions unbeaten at the competition in 4,397 days.
For years now, the prevailing logic has been that the number of caps a team has collectively will add an edge. But in this 46-14 triumph, the All Blacks performance was an affront to that convention.
Ireland’s starting back-line had 430 caps between them. They have put a lot of miles on the clock together over the last four years, breaking off Six Nations wins, a Grand Slam and two historic victories over the All Blacks. The hope was that finally a group like this could lead Ireland past the World Cup quarters.
But against them stood reigning World Champions New Zealand. Their first-choice scrum-half Aaron Smith was the only back in their listed side to ever start a World Cup knock-out match before. Their whole back-line had just 246 caps to their names.
Yet Richie Mo’unga (14 caps before today), George Bridge (7), Jack Goodhue (11) and Sevu Reece (5) took a chainsaw to the clichés.
In the inquest, it will be suggested that Ireland peaked a year too soon in their preparations for this World Cup. Their 2018 was monstrous, but once again they exit a World Cup before the last four.
What may not be brought up again is the presumption we heard after the 2015 Rugby World Cup that New Zealand would be missing something after so many experienced names left their ranks, retiring or moving abroad. How would they cope with the experience gap, it was mused.
Certainly plenty of stock has been put into the idea of cap collection in the past.
In the years leading up to a home World Cup in 2015, then-England head coach Stuart Lancaster spoke often of the need to build Test experience into the team.
At speaking events, Lancaster was heard to say that he was aiming for a player-led leadership scheme. The belief was that the All Blacks – the benchmark – had a decision-making structure at the time that was 60 per cent led by the players and 40 per cent by the coaches. England needed to create more leadership within their playing ranks, but the coaches led a lot, Lancaster said.
At that time many England players, guys we see today, had cap totals in the teens. New Zealand’s numbers before 2015 started climbing from 30, 40, 50, 60. Richie McCaw had 130.
Then, after the 2015 World Cup, Conrad Smith, Daniel Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Keven Mealamu, Richie McCaw and Tony Woodcock left the All Blacks. There was worry in some quarters.
That’s the power of convention. But it held no sway over All Blacks boss Steve Hansen. For a Bledisloe Test in August, before a final World Cup squad was named, the coach dropped 213 caps worth of experience in Owen Franks, Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane. Ultimately Franks was not selected for this World Cup while the other two can’t get into the front-line team at the moment.
At the time Hansen said: “We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think that the guys we put in aren't good enough to do the job on Saturday if we play well. I don't think it's a risk and there's lots of reward in it.”
The rewards keep rolling in. With a similar approach, New Zealand have advanced to the World Cup semi-finals.
In overwhelming Ireland in Tokyo, Goodhue was snuffing out attacking moves by slamming the door on Keith Earls. Reece created a try by similarly hammering Johnny Sexton, dislodging a ball from him that was hacked upfield for a Beauden Barrett try.
The relatively inexperienced duo combined to create a sweeping score for scrum-half Smith in the corner, with Reece running from set-piece, hitting Goodhue before looping around him and getting the ball back.
Mo’unga finished with 11 points from the boot and worked well in tandem with Barrett, swapping time at first receiver.
It has also been suggested that the respected leadership model within the All Blacks halls has changed, softened. Reports from New Zealand suggest that no one voice holds sway over the group and that young guys, with very few Tests under the belt, can have a real influence on how this team operate.
Now none of this means that Ireland have been wrong to reward a few big voices or time at the coal-face – because what matters is the quality of work done when you’re there, and over the last cycle so much of it has been excellent stuff from established faces. The plaudits have been well-earnt.
But they also played a big part in their own downfall here. Give a Kiwi side a 22-point lead, plenty of penalty advantages and lots of possession and you cannot be shocked when they slap you back. It was a whimper of a finish to Ireland’s World Cup campaign.
But if there was fear of trying new things before for the Irish, they now have to start their next phase with a first-time head coach in Andy Farrell. They will have a new captain, too. They will need a relatively unfamiliar face starting at hooker and others should slip away in the coming months.
There will of course be some continuity and after all, Farrell has been working excellently as a Schmidt assistant for the last cycle and is one of the most highly-respected figures in the elite game. This could be an exciting new time. It just starts in a way few wanted.
As for New Zealand, it looks like goods produced on the pitch mean so much more to them than the figure in brackets beside a player’s name. It means sometimes superstar names can be cut out almost as quickly as they are listed. But they are keeping the rest of the competition on their toes.
And if you like established records, then there’s solace in the familiarity of New Zealand making a semi-final. Only in 2007 have they failed to make it past the first knock-out round. Some things rarely change.
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