Ireland hasn't won a knockout match in seven attempts at the Rugby World Cup. Nerves will be a factor at Tokyo Stadium on Saturday, but the Irish have won two of their last three tests against the All Blacks, starting with their historic first at Chicago in 2016 and another in Dublin last November.
The Irish have a Kiwi head coach in Joe Schmidt, who is well versed in New Zealand rugby. And his assistant, Andy Farrell, has worked out a defensive system that seems to be working against the All Blacks.
This showdown is happening before most had anticipated. The Irish held the top-ranking before the tournament and were favored to top Pool A, but an upset 19-12 loss to Japan meant they finished second and drew the toughest of all assignments in the knockout stage.
Compounding the usual tension were the remarks from the critic in Ireland which were widely republished in New Zealand. To the point where the All Blacks were asked about it after the match squad was announced.
Captain Keiran Read said the ceremonial pre-game challenge galvanized the players in the team, and the team with the people of New Zealand. "It's not about the opposition or anything, it's about us as All Blacks, the tradition that's held for us over 100 years," he said.
Flyhalf Richie Mo'unga said the haka is "very sacred for us, energizes us." Mo'unga's performance will be pivotal to New Zealand's game, considering he's only played 14 tests — seven in the starting XV — and will be marking Johnny Sexton, the 2018 world player of the year, the general in Ireland's attack and a stickler for the structure that epitomizes their game.
Mo'unga was given a start when the All Blacks devised a dual playmakers plan, and Beauden Barrett, another former world player of the year, was switched to fullback. While the Irish have plenty of intel on New Zealand, Mo'unga isn't lacking when it comes to an understanding of opponents courtesy of Ronan O'Gara, his Super Rugby coach at the Crusaders. O'Gara combined with Peter Stringer in the halves for 55 tests for Ireland, a national record that Sexton and Conor Murray will break this weekend.
"ROG has been awesome ... he's very determined, very driven, and that gives me a little insight into what the Irish are like," Mo'unga said. "They're going to come all guns blazing." Awesome is also a word Mo'unga used to describe Sexton. And that's where some backup from Barrett, who will start in 15 but likely show up as a first receiver at times, will help Mo'unga. There are three Barrett brothers in the New Zealand 23, so they'll seem like they're up all over the field.
The tandem playmaker strategy took a little while to settle, but the backline awareness has improved immeasurably and helped in the pool-stage win over South Africa. "We've come a long way since our first pairing," said Mo'unga, who has carved out his spot as the preferred kicker. "It's important to know we're never going to get everything right but we're trying to sharpen up parts of our game where we can help each other and, as key drivers of the team, help the team out."
Schmidt has recalled Rob Kearney at fullback and Peter O'Mahony on the blindside flank and moved Robbie Henshaw to inside center to cover for the absence of Bundee Aki, who was banned for three games after his red card for a high tackle against Samoa last weekend. Garry Ringrose will start at outside center.
In all, 12 of Schmidt's starting XV also started in the 16-9 victory against the All Blacks last November. Schmidt said his squad had compiled many milestones "so the accumulation of those experiences together hopefully builds a bit of confidence."
"You need to have some belief," he said. "You can't go out against an All Blacks side and accept that you're second fiddle. You've got to go out and put your best foot forward — this 23 will be committed to doing that."
Schmidt and New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen both acknowledged the intense but friendly rivalry between the teams, and in that spirit, and in the wake of outrage over the criticism of the haka, New Zealand's airline posted a satirical safety message to Irish fans in response.
Both head coaches are leaving their posts after the World Cup, so one of them will be flying home after the weekend. "That's just the cold, hard facts about the World Cup," Hansen said. "We have experienced it (going out) ourselves in '07, and there's no guarantees we won't experience it again. Ireland are in a situation where they haven't gone past a quarterfinal so they will be doing their darndest not to go home. We'll be the same."
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