TOKYO, 18 Oct - A preview of the quarter-final between New Zealand and Ireland, which kicks off at 7.15pm on Sunday at Tokyo Stadium.
The Big Picture
The first World Cup meeting between the All Blacks and Ireland in 24 years promises to be a fascinating clash between two teams who have developed one of the keenest rivalries in world rugby since Joe Schmidt took the Irish reins six years ago and initiated his coaching duel with fellow New Zealander Steve Hansen.
Their four meetings have resulted in two wins apiece with only four points in Ireland's favour separating the teams and nothing to suggest Saturday's encounter should be any less tight.
The hat-trick-chasing champions start as favourites, having won their titanic opener with much-fancied South Africa and then rattled up two of the highest scores of the tournament against Canada (63) and Namibia (71).
Still, the suspicion lingers that they may have entered the knockout stages a little undercooked after the Italy match was called off and they had to replicate match practice in a fierce training session. So, one long month since they beat the Springboks, are they rusty or just rested and ready?
Hansen says it is the latter, even if secretly he might have loved to have seen his key second-row Brodie Retallick sharpen up against Italy after playing just 30 minutes of rugby in 12 weeks. On the other hand, his deadliest weapon, full-back Beauden Barrett will be fresh and free of his leg niggle.
Ireland lost first-choice centre Bundee Aki to suspension after he was sent off in the final pool game against Samoa. Yet that 47-5 victory carved out for the most part by 14 men was a confidence-boosting end to what had been an uneven campaign for Ireland, featuring an efficient win over Scotland and a humbling defeat by Japan’s trailblazers.
🚨Team announcement🚨— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 17, 2019
Here's the @IrishRugby that will face the @AllBlacks in the quarter-finals at #RWC2019 #NZLvIRE #WebbEllisCup
Find out where you can watch at https://t.co/z0BgdPYBjN pic.twitter.com/8zaVJajwZn
Still, Schmidt’s men ended the group stages having conceded just two tries, missed the fewest tackles and enjoyed a better tackle success percentage than any other team.
The question is whether the World Cup's meanest defence can cope with the most inventive and clinical attack. Recent history suggests Ireland have found the recipe to smother and frustrate Hansen's men, but New Zealand's first try, when George Bridge finished a dazzling counter against the Springboks, and their latest, TJ Perenara's airborne stretch against Namibia, below, were the All Blacks at their majestic best.
There is no question now that the All Blacks see them as one of their most formidable foes. It may come down to Ireland’s self-belief. Do they really believe that, never having gone past the quarter-finals, they can halt the three-time champions? This is a quality the All Blacks do not lack.
"We're under no illusions about the threat Ireland pose but... if we get our mental prep right and come with the right attitude, then we're going to be hard to stop," says Sonny Bill Williams."
Form guide (most recent matches first)
New Zealand: WWWWW
Played 31 – New Zealand 28W Ireland 2W Drawn 1
In the spotlight
Johnny Sexton is seen as such a key figure that New Zealand coach Steve Hansen was prompted to remind everyone this week that he believes Ireland "are better than a one-man team". Still, the fact remains that the 34-year-old fly-half, who still has the priceless ability to dictate Ireland’s possession-based game, needs to be at his very best, especially as his opposite number, Richie Mo’unga, has so far looked just about the best No.10 in the tournament.
After two more experimental-looking line-ups against Canada and Namibia, Hansen has gone largely with the team that defeated the Springboks, only with Jack Goodhue preferred to Ryan Crotty at centre, Codie Taylor switching to starting hooker rather than Dane Coles and fit-again Retallick in for Scott Barrett. Schmidt is trusting in experience, with full-back Rob Kearney and blindside flanker Peter O'Mahony being preferred to Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Beirne, who have made strong pushes for inclusion. A dozen of the starting XV that beat New Zealand in Dublin last November will begin again on Saturday.
🚨Team Announcement🚨@AllBlacks have named their side to take on @IrishRugby in the quarter-finals at #RWC2019. Thoughts on the team selected? #NZLvIRE #webbelliscup— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 17, 2019
Find out where you can watch at https://t.co/qoBpY19EGA pic.twitter.com/HzDWWEuBWK
Stats and Trivia
Ireland went 28 matches, stretching back over 111 years, without beating the All Blacks. Over the past two years, they have won two out of three.
The only World Cup meeting between the teams, in 1995, was notable for being Jonah Lomu’s debut in the competition. He scored two tries and set up another.
In 104 test matches during Steve Hansen's tenure as head coach, the All Blacks have been restricted to a single-digit score only once - the 16-9 defeat by Ireland last year.
New Zealand are the only opponents in a World Cup that Ireland have faced but never beaten.
"Yeah, we've got some new stuff that we haven't done before and it's up to them to figure it out." - Cian Healy, Ireland prop
"You know that Joe (Schmidt) does a lot of studies - so that can be a strength and a weakness. We might be able to set him up." - Steve Hansen, New Zealand head coach