By Phil Rice
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have the unenviable task on Saturday (KO 11.15am UK time) of facing the reigning World Cup champions and favourites for the title, New Zealand, if they are to end their quarter-final hoodoo.
The continued success story of the hosts, Japan, resulted in Ireland having to settle for the runners-up position in their qualifying group.
Japan proved again how far they have come as a rugby nation during this tournament, when they defeated Scotland at the weekend and remain unbeaten so far.
They play South Africa in the quarter-finals, who will not take the challenge of the Brave Blossoms lightly.
The All Blacks were spared having to play last weekend when their match with Italy was cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis.
Encouragingly, Ireland put in a much-improved performance against Samoa, winning by 47-5, and demonstrating the benefit of a nine-day break from playing.
Even more importantly was the fact that no serious injury resulted from the game and Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw proved their fitness and both are likely to face the All Blacks on Saturday.
The only casualty from the proceedings at the weekend was Bundee Aki who was red-carded.
Henshaw is likely to be partnered by Garry Ringrose in the centre on Saturday, although consideration will be given to Chris Farrell, whose physical strength and tackling ability would be of benefit against the strong running All Blacks midfield.
There has been considerable criticism of Ireland’s ‘one dimensional’ direct approach during the tournament, with their critics saying they will need to offer more than this limited strategy against New Zealand if they are to succeed.
However, it should be remembered that this style accounted for the All Blacks in two of the last three matches Ireland have played against the world champions.
Those victories will add to Ireland’s belief that Steve Hansen’s men are not unbeatable.
There is a growing feeling that Schmidt’s troops have at least one big match in them and perhaps Saturday may be the occasion for them to really perform to their very best.
While the All Blacks will start as favourites they will also be aware that Ireland have out-played them twice in the past couple of years.
This tournament is Schmidt’s swansong as Ireland coach and he will be desperate to put one over on his homeland before returning there with his family at the end of the year.
It would be fitting for the coach, who has done more for Irish rugby than any of his predecessors, to overcome the greatest challenge presently in world rugby.
Hansen will be aware that Schmidt has out-thought him on those two recent occasions and will see Ireland as one of their greatest challenges en route to what he hopes will be retention of their title.
Ireland’s weekend performance was encouraging from several viewpoints. First phase position was flawless with the scrum being particularly powerful.
Tadhg Furlong gave an immense performance, gaining yards as a ball carrier and completely dominating his side of the scrum.
James Ryan has become a world class performer and Tadhg Beirne will have given his coach some reason to consider him as a blindside flanker for this week.
The Munster player is big and strong and excellent at turning over possession, essential requirements if you hope to turnover the All Blacks.
Schmidt is a loyal selector, however, and may side with retaining Peter O’Mahony who has always stepped up to the plate in big games. Beirne may well be used as an impact substitute.
The forward dominated style that the Irish coach has favoured so far has resulted in the outside backs having little opportunity to show their attacking qualities.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) October 15, 2019
It was encouraging to see Jordan Larmour looking for work and imposing himself on the game at the weekend.
He justified his man of the match award and is likely to have earned at least a place on the bench for this week.
Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls will hopefully have noted the importance of imposing themselves on the game and not just wait for possession to come to them.
Stockdale has been such an important figure in Ireland’s recent successes in big matches. He will need to capitalise on the opportunities that come his way.
If Ireland are to succeed their pack will have to dominate up front and Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will need to control the game, as they did in the two successful games against New Zealand.
There are so many factors that can influence results in these competitive matches. The All Blacks were heavily beaten by Australia eight weeks ago when Scott Barrett was red carded and Steve Hansen’s team capitulated.
Ireland certainly do have an opportunity to break the quarter-final ‘glass ceiling’ that has prevented them from progressing beyond this stage in World Cups to date.
It would certainly be a fitting reward for their outstanding coach.