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All Blacks stand in the way as Ireland target first-ever World Cup semi-final

‘There’s nothing we can do about the previous results,’ said Ireland out-half Johnny Sexton.

Updated Oct 19th 2019, 8:20 AM

THE LAST TIME Ireland faced and beat the All Blacks, the Kiwis didn’t have George Bridge and Sevu Reece on the wings.

Beauden Barrett was their out-half, rather than their fullback, while Ardie Savea was their at openside flanker, rather than blindside, mainly because Sam Cane was missing through injury.

Karl Tu’inukuafe, currently playing Mitre 10 Cup rugby, was their starting loosehead prop, while the veteran Owen Franks, also omitted from this World Cup squad, was at tighthead. 

rugby-bledisloe-cup Sevu Reece is a new star of this All Blacks team. Source: AAP/PA Images

Rieko Ioane, Ryan Crotty, and Ben Smith – all left out of today’s matchday 23 – were starters in the backline, while Damian McKenzie, now injured, was a second playmaker from 15.

Clearly, a huge amount has changed for the All Blacks in the 11 months since that 16-9 loss in Dublin.

“We have changed a number of things, some of those because of performances last year which we weren’t entirely proud of,” said assistant coach Ian Foster. “You learn your lessons at the time and you take them forward and then you evolve them.”

The All Blacks’ changes are one reason today’s contest in Tokyo Stadium [KO 11.15am Irish time, eir Sport/RTÉ] is so intriguing. 

Ireland’s record of two wins in their last three games against the All Blacks is another factor, but the Kiwis feel their alterations make those defeats less relevant.

The fact that this is a World Cup quarter-final, rather than a November Test, is yet another element of interest. This is very much the real deal.

New Zealand are the favourites here and Ireland winning would certainly count as a surprise, but it has been difficult to escape the optimism around Joe Schmidt’s squad this week, the confidence that they have the tools required to stifle and overcome the Kiwis.

That said, Schmidt will have reminded his men of the All Blacks’ qualities, from the mobility of hookers Codie Taylor and Dane Coles, the fine handling skill of tighthead Nepo Laulala, and the grizzled lock play of Brodie Retallick – who is short of game time – and Sam Whitelock.

The back row of Savea, Cane and captain Kieran Read are only starting together for the fourth time, but they are three high-quality individuals who hit hard and never stop working.

new-zealand-training-session-tatsuminomori-seaside-park Kieran Read will be under pressure as captain. Source: Adam Davy

Aaron Smith is the best passer in the game, while out-half Richie Mo’unga has added controlling skills and even more pace to this All Blacks team. Leaving out Crotty in midfield was a big call and one Ireland would have wanted, but Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue have the ability to deliver box-office performances.

New Zealand’s new wing pair, Bridge and Reece, have been a hot topic of discussion this week. Their attacking quality is in little doubt – they have five clean breaks apiece in their two World Cup appearances so far – but Ireland will look to test their relative inexperience at Test level in terms of backfield positioning and decision-making. 

Both, it should be said, are superb tacklers and have strong technical aerial skills but it has been a brave decision from Hansen and co. to back Reece and Bridge over the more experienced Ioane and Smith.

“There’s a little bit of fearlessness about them,” said Foster. “Some of it is probably because they haven’t been to a World Cup before and they don’t know what’s at stake in some sense.

“But they’re really sensible young men, they train hard, they play hard. When you haven’t got Ben and Rieko in the group, those are tough decisions because they’re pretty special players. But we just felt that George and Sevu had done enough to show that there was a bit of a spark there and we’ll run with that.”

And then there is the sensational Beauden Barrett at fullback, whose intuitive and intelligent attacking play can light up even the very biggest Test matches.

Furthermore, Steve Hansen has a punchy-looking bench to send into action, though Schmidt will feel his own reserves can offer real impact.

While the official sales say that 2,000 fans from Ireland bought tickets for this contest, there will certainly be a great deal more Irish supporters in Tokyo Stadium than that number, with lots of expats having flooded in from New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere.

There has also been a furious search for Japan fans willing to swap tickets, many Ireland supporters having predicted that Schmidt’s side would come out of Pool A as winners and play tomorrow. 

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paddy-carroll-paul-casey-and-eoin-mcmahon Ireland fans will be descending on Tokyo Stadium. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But here they are after a shock defeat to the hosts in the pool stages, having recovered to secure their quarter-final but also added another underperformance to several others in 2019 – England, Wales, England.

Schmidt’s men might not have blown people away with their form this year, but they believe they have the qualities, experience, and cohesion to squeeze past the All Blacks. 

With rain expected in Tokyo, Ireland’s expected game plan seems clear. They will likely attempt to suffocate the Kiwis with their pressure kicking, relentless ball-carrying, ability to retain possession, superb discipline, cohesive mauling, and clever set-piece plays from lineout and scrum platforms.

Schmidt has, of course, held some plays back for the occasion or tweaked some old ones in a bid to fool the All Blacks but best-laid plans can be ruined by a slightly wayward pass or an opposition player making an off-the-cuff decision to change the defensive picture.

As important will be Ireland’s ability to limit the All Blacks’ chances on turnover attack, while Schmidt will be hoping that Andy Farrell’s superb defensive record against the Kiwis continues. Shutting down Mo’unga and Barrett’s creativity will be key.

The kicking battle in this game will be intriguing, with the Kiwis having limited their use of the boot in the facile pool wins over Canada and Namibia. Expect them to pepper Ireland with a mixture of box-kicks, cross-kicks, grubbers, and chips.

Similarly, it would be a surprise if Ireland weren’t to liberally go to their kicking game in a bid to stress the Kiwis. On top of that, the success or otherwise of Sexton and Mo’unga from the tee could be key in this knock-out tie, while Hansen has selected Jordie Barrett as his number 23 largely due to his ability to kick long-range goals.

There are so many fascinating elements to this contest and one senses that the team who can get in front earlier will thrive.

If New Zealand nudge ahead by cracking Ireland in the opening exchanges, there would be Irish fears of Hansen’s men fulfilling their 12-point favoritism. 

johnny-sexton Johnny Sexton practices his kicking at Tokyo Stadium today. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But if Ireland can lead by half-time, they may put fresh doubts in Kiwi minds and back themselves to create another massive slice of history under Schmidt. 

As ever, the Ireland head coach will be hoping that his team get the rub of the green from referee Nigel Owens, who is not afraid of making big decisions even late on in big games.

The perception is that Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final baggage will be too much to overcome, but Schmidt’s men feel that this is a new group whose fate is World Cup success.

“Of course we’d like it to be better but it is what it is,” said Sexton. “There’s nothing we can do about previous results now.

“All we can do now is concentrate on putting in our best performance. That will give us a chance and if we can walk off that pitch having played our best, given it everything, we can look at ourselves afterwards no matter what.

“That’s what we focus on. The record at the tournament, it’s not something that we’ve overly spoken about. Of course we know we can make history, we can create something a little bit special if we can do that.”

NEW ZEALAND: Beauden Barrett; Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, George Bridge; Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Nepo Laulala; Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (captain).

Replacements: Dane Coles, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta’avao, Scott Barrett, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Jordie Barrett. 

IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best (captain), Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.

Referee: Nigel Owens [Wales].

- This article was updated at 5.13am to correct ‘now’ to ‘not’ in the fifth-last paragraph.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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