The phoney war is over. The Rugby World Cup knockout stages are upon us and Ireland face the unenviable task of having to dethrone New Zealand in order to make a first-ever RWC Semi-Final. Can Joe Schmidt’s men do it? It’s over to PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy to see what he thinks!
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What a challenge! After a rollercoaster month where we firmly believed, firmly disbelieved and kind of believed again, our faith in this Irish squad and management team, and more importantly their self-belief, is about to undergo the ultimate test. At 11.15 Irish time, Ireland take on an ominously strong-looking All Blacks side in Tokyo, knowing nothing but a career-best effort can give them a shot to reach the promised land of the World Cup Semi-Finals. It’s what all the plans, all the milestones, all the trophies and accolades over the last 4 years have gone towards. But can they dust off their giant-killing game when the heat is REALLY on?
The A Team get the nod.
In a move that surprised absolutely nobody, least of all Steve Hansen, Joe has gone with the tried and tested warhorses for what is going to be a titanic battle. The pros for this are several – experience really counts when you’re trying to achieve what has never been achieved before, muscle memory matters in massive matchups and the battle of the benches is one that Ireland, for the first time ever in facing New Zealand, might actually edge. The call in going for Rob Kearney versus Jordan Larmour is clear – aerial supremacy, positional solidity and a left footed kicking option with serious distance. What you lose in unpredictability, you more than compensate in predictability, if you get my drift. For all the extra edge he gives, Larmour still has the capacity to make a rookie mistake (intercept in the Japan game being an increasingly rare example) that Kearney rarely, if ever, makes. Plus Kearney has literally excelled in all his recent outings versus New Zealand. With the midfield die cast by Bundee Aki’s suspension, the only other possibly contentious call came in the selection of Peter O’Mahony but given his experience and particularly his man-of-the-match showing in the November victory last year, it’s hard to argue with the logic. The old dog needs to have his fiercest bite at the ready for tomorrow and it’s hard not to expect a ferocious effort from a back row that knows how to take the fight to these Kiwis.
Form is temporary but…..
There’s been an understandable swing in sentiment from the public and pundits, Irish or otherwise, to doubt the ability of this Irish group to really compete and win tomorrow. That’s no surprise given our form in 2019, when at times it looked like confusion, or even worse staleness, reigned. After a really impressive first hit against Scotland, the defeat to Japan hit the confidence of everyone, leaving us in worry mode about form, tactics, injuries and lynchpin playmakers. But I think at times we on the outside probably underestimate the faith that this Irish team have in each other and the management team. Plus they have used the All Blacks as their ultimate target, beating them twice and effectively setting themselves up to take over the mantle that France have vacated as the All Blacks’ bogey team. This Irish side will have no fear of facing the Haka tomorrow, even in a knockout game and perversely, it may now be that facing the Kiwis is the one scenario that brings out the best in Ireland. They may not be expected to win but they’ll have a real belief in their own minds and with autumnal conditions arriving in Japan, there’ll be few if any external factors to blame.
Attitude and tactics all important
There’s no doubt that if we’re to have any chance tomorrow, we need to bring phenomenal intensity and accuracy from the start, creating pressure and scoreboard impact on the All Blacks. The Springboks may have delivered 20 minutes in their opening pool game but New Zealand showed the damage that they can do to you if you give them counter attack opportunities off enforced errors. In my mind, the lack of a full on test match since that win over the Boks is a definite disadvantage for New Zealand and while it might bring them to a Final in peak condition, there’s a real risk that Ireland will have a slight match hardness edge tomorrow. In terms of tactical approach, while we can certainly expect the usual high intensity carrying game, pressure defence and aerial kicking test from Ireland, it has also been interesting to hear Johnny Sexton chat openly about the training ground work that they’ve held back for this match. Joe being Joe will have always expected to face the All Blacks on the way through the knockout stages and a bit like what Padraig Harrington attempted to do by rebuilding his PGA-winning swing to try to beat Tiger Woods down the stretch in a Major, Joe relishes the chance to unpick the All Blacks tactically. It’s hard not to suspect that Ireland will really go after a relatively inexperienced back three that may be unrivalled with attacking ball in hand but have yet to be seriously tested in the white-hot pressure of a World Cup knockout game. Bauden Barrett is a phenomenal player but his defence and backfield cover are his areas of potential weakness and any sense that New Zealand’s key man is rattled, similarly to how the Lions got at him in their 2017 Test Series, will unsettle his less experienced teammates.
Referee has key role
As we’ve seen throughout the Rugby World Cup, the team of match officials will be a huge factor in the way the tie unfolds and Nigel Owens’ appointment has been greeted with mixed reactions. The positives are that he is a top referee who Ireland know very well. He has a reputation for being lenient at the breakdown and letting a lot go so Ireland need to be really smart in how they react to his prevailing approach on the day. It’s fair to say that one of the most disappointing aspects of our loss to Japan was how slow we were to react to the officiating on the day and we need to get the upper hand in the penalty count tomorrow if we’re to have any hope of winning.
The Andy Farrell factor
It’s been interesting to observe the irritation of the New Zealand management team around the notion that Andy Farrell has an Indian sign over them but that is a factor that we simply have to exploit tomorrow. In our two wins over the All Blacks, not to mention the drawn series with the Lions, Farrell’s defensive blitz defence was the vital difference. New Zealand have adapted their play, changing to a two playmaker strategy, playing with a dual openside backrow and tinkering with the angles and depths of their attack play so it’s going to be fascinating what Farrell has up his sleeve to keep ramping up the pressure. Having conceded so few tries and with their best defensive midfield combination in place, Ireland will be looking to really set a tone that stifles any All Blacks phase play and sees them trying to live off scraps. With any other team, that would be enough but with the All Blacks, even scraps are dangerous.
Settle for squeaky bum
It’s a real head and heart conundrum tomorrow. The head says that we haven’t progressed enough since last year to live with a strengthened All Black outfit. The heart says that this Irish squad have at least one big display left in them and that if they bring their best form and intensity, plus whatever strike plays that Joe has mothballed, they can edge it. It’s going to need an 8 or 9 out of 10 effort from every single player, especially Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray who really need to manipulate and frustrate the New Zealand key men. Is it possible? 100%. Is it probable? Ask me at 11.45am tomorrow! The one group of people who will have no doubt are the boys themselves and that will be crucial if we head into the last quarter neck and neck.