Ireland faces weight of history and might of All Blacks in Rugby World Cup quarters
PARIS (AP) — The weight of history on their backs. The might of New Zealand facing them. A home crowd behind them.
Judgement day for top-ranked Ireland comes on Saturday in a hugely anticipated Rugby World Cup quarterfinal showdown with the All Blacks in what is sure to be another heaving Stade de France bathed in shamrock green.
This game has been 36 years in the making, since the first of Ireland’s seven quarterfinal flops. The last four years under Andy Farrell have been spent deliberately confronting and overcoming every possible problem to prime Ireland for this moment.
Beating the All Blacks in a series in New Zealand. Check. Beating reigning world champion South Africa. Check. Beating every other title contender. Check. Proven tournament winner; Six Nations Grand Slam. Check. Player depth to be injury-proof. Check. Consistently ruthless. Check.
It has culminated in the greatest run in the history of Irish rugby — 17 successive test wins launched by two incredible victories in New Zealand in July last year. One more win by Ireland will equal the world’s best streak by a tier one team.
Only three weeks ago, Ireland proved on rugby’s grandest stage that it could withstand the brute power of the then No. 2-ranked Springboks and prevail in a seismic contest.
The Irish, bonded by a large core of Leinstermen and bossed by the ageless Jonathan Sexton, are playing in rarefied air that surviving All Blacks of the world champion vintage of 2015 would appreciate. Those All Blacks under Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were similarly forged by failure and became unstoppable.
But the current vintage of All Blacks are frequently stoppable, have been since the 2017 tour by the British and Irish Lions, whose line speed disoriented the New Zealanders. England’s power overwhelmed them in the 2019 World Cup semifinals. The four-year reign of Ian Foster has delivered a litany of unwanted records — rock-bottomed by the worst loss in All Blacks history in August — that have been papered over by winning Rugby Championships and Bledisloe Cups.
The All Blacks started this World Cup by losing to host France and dropping their 36-year unbeaten record in the pool stage, and their inconsistency has offered no reason to suggest they will avoid on Saturday a quarterfinal exit, which would equal their worst finish in the Rugby World Cup.
In his last news conference before the match, Foster seemingly clutched at straws by saying the quarterfinals represent a huge mental hurdle for the Irish. It is true. As great as the Irish are, there will be a nagging splinter of doubt that they can triumph until they actually do it.
The All Blacks know the feeling well. Scars from their own failures to actually win the Rugby World Cup saw them choke every four years for 20 years until they won again in 2011.
“We had to deal with the demons of Cardiff and France and people talking about (the) 2007 (quarterfinal defeat),” Foster said. “In (the) 2019 (quarterfinals when facing Ireland), it was all about playing a red-hot Irish team who had beaten us the year before and (was) coming into the (World Cup ranked) number one.”
New Zealand overcame its demons. Ireland is expected to as well on Saturday because it doesn’t hold any fear of the All Blacks, not after winning three of their last four meetings, five of the last eight.
“We have worked on our mental game for the last four years and put ourselves in different scenarios to prepare for this,” Sexton said. Sexton is the thumping heart of Ireland, and smiling a lot. That should concern New Zealand. Normally grumpy, the flyhalf is content. He’s rolling, Ireland is rolling, everything is on track for him to retire as a world champion.
But what Ireland can’t anticipate is perhaps New Zealand’s greatest edge. It’s instinct, an ability to think on the fly. The All Blacks are well drilled but not as tied to structure as Ireland is. They have also been tapping into the forensic mind of assistant coach Joe Schmidt, who began Ireland’s transformation to No. 1 from 2013-19 with two historic wins against the All Blacks.
Ireland is unchanged from smashing Scotland 36-14 last weekend while the All Blacks have welcomed back their first-choice props Tyrel Lomax from injury and Ethan de Groot from suspension. But both are short of match time.
“Everyone’s fit, healthy,” Foster said.
But not everyone’s selectable. Winger Mark Tele’a was stood down from the matchday 23 for breaking team protocol and Leicester Fainga’anuku was in his place. It is a big call by the underdog team. Tele’a scored both New Zealand tries in the loss to France but Foster said, “We believe in what we stand for.”
All Blacks fans may not mind the surprise change. Fainga’anuku tore up Super Rugby Pacific this year and has four tries in France. He’ll be marking Ireland’s Mack Hansen, who has overcome a calf injury.
Conor Murray has played in Ireland’s last three quarterfinal failures in 2011, 2015 and 2019 and is cautiously excited about Saturday.
“We’ve talked about what we’ve done over the last number of years and the level of performance we’ve been able to achieve,” he said. “It gives us lots of belief in terms of the ability we have in the squad and what we can do. On the other side, there’s enough of us in the room that know how tough these quarterfinals are to win. It all comes down to on the day.”
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter. Reserves: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Joe McCarthy, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Jack Crowley, Jimmy O’Brien.
New Zealand: Beauden Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Shannon Frizell, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Tyrel Lomax, Codie Taylor, Ethan de Groot. Replacements: Dane Coles, Tamaiti Williams, Fletcher Newell, Sam Whitelock, Dalton Papali’i, Finlay Christie, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown.