All Blacks, Irish to renew rivalry in World Cup quarterfinal
The quarterfinal meeting between Ireland and New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup comes with a strong feeling of reckoning.
Ireland hadn't beaten New Zealand in 28 matches over 111 years until its 40-29 victory at Soldier Field in Chicago in 2016.
It did so again, 16-9, in Dublin in 2018, establishing Ireland as the one team in world rugby at present that regularly has the All Blacks' number.
Ireland went on, after Wales' brief tenure atop the world rankings, to become the No. 1-ranked team just ahead of the Rugby World Cup, displacing New Zealand from a spot it had occupied since the ranking system began.
Against that background, the match between Ireland and defending champion New Zealand at Tokyo on Saturday, which appears the most competitive of the quarterfinals, also seems a reckoning between the teams.
It occurs earlier in the tournament than expected. Japan's wins over Ireland and Scotland in Pool A went against pre-tournament predictions and saw the hosts emerge atop their pool, forcing second-place Ireland into a quarterfinal against Pool C winner New Zealand.
"The best part is we know who we're playing. They're a quality side, they've been No. 1 this year," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said Monday. "The last three results are 'loss, win, loss' so there won't be any complacency in our camp. It's pretty exciting; we're right where we want to be."
Hansen said last year's encounter was a "titanic struggle" and Ireland was slightly better on the day.
"It's taken them a long time to get there and obviously they enjoyed it," Hansen said of the drought-breaking win, "so they decided to keep doing it."
With more at stake this weekend, Hansen said the game would have a different feel to recent head-to-head meetings.
"The big difference here is it's a do or die game for both teams. Both teams are in good nick — fresh, excited."
If there is an outside influence on the match it is the fact New Zealand's last scheduled pool match against Italy on Saturday was canceled because of Typhoon Hagibis, meaning they will go into the knockout round without a match since Oct. 6 when they beat Namibia 71-9 in a muddling performance.
Ireland go into the quarterfinal on the back of a much more emphatic 45-7 win over Samoa on Saturday, achieved with only 14 men. That gives Ireland the better preparation, leaving New Zealand to do the bulk of its lead-up work on the training field.
Ireland flyhalf Johnny Sexton was hopeful that Ireland's upset loss to Japan was the bad game they needed to get out of their system before the knockout rounds. Ireland has lost quarterfinals at the last two World Cups after being dominant in the pool stage. The fact they've beaten New Zealand twice since the last World Cup was also a boost.
"I suppose we can take a little bit of confidence from the last few times we've played them," Sexton said. "I'm hoping that having lost a pool game that we've got that quarterfinal performance out of our system that we've had in other tournaments.
"The difference now is we're not favorites going into this quarterfinal whereas we were in the last two. So we're building nicely."
The match is one of two — the other is between Japan and South Africa — which will involve an evident contrast in styles.
New Zealand and Japan will both attempt to play an adventurous style, while Ireland and South Africa will attempt to slow down the game.
That may be an over-simplification but the evidence of the tournament to date is that Ireland may rely strongly on a pick-and-go style, on box kicking and on a swift defensive line.
The All Blacks showed a new ability to outflank rush defense in their pool win over South Africa but haven't been able to build on that in group matches against weaker opponents. New Zealand's high-tempo style often takes several matches each season to develop both in timing and accuracy. Their almost two-week layoff threatens a return of the rustiness they showed at the start of this season.
At the same time Ireland does not appear to be as strong as they were last year when it won 11 or 12 tests, beat the All Blacks, won the Six Nations title and was named World Rugby Team of the Year. It's tactical focus has narrowed and it has become more forward-oriented and one-dimensional.
Because both teams and coaches know each other well, there are likely to be subtle changes in tactics and systems on Saturday.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read said his team had not been adversely affected by their longer than expected break before the quarterfinals. Their systems are strongly bedded in, their fitness is beyond question and they had used their down time productively.
"Final games are mental, as well as physical," he said. "The eight teams left are capable of winning the competition, physically and probably mentally.
"It's about who can step up to the pressure moment."