Paris: Ireland will seek to at last break through their Rugby World Cup glass ceiling by beating New Zealand at the Stade de France to reach the semi-finals for the first time on Saturday.
Andy Farrell’s team, ranked No.1 in the world, can take a big step towards emulating England in 2003 in completing the Six Nations Grand Slam/World Cup double.
Hammered by the All Blacks four years ago at the same stage, the recent history between the two sides suggests the Irish have slightly the upper hand against an ageing team who appear weaker than 2019.
Victory today would be Ireland head coach Farrell’s fourth in five meetings with New Zealand, including a historic series win in New Zealand last year.
“Everyone says it all over the world, defence wins World Cups,” said Farrell after his players had snuffed out the Scottish threat in the 36-14 hammering last Saturday.
The Scots had huffed and puffed for the first 20 minutes inside Irish territory but came away with nothing as the defence held as impressively as it had in the 13-8 victory over defending champions South Africa two weeks earlier.
Heads tend to go down when there is zero return, as Farrell said, the psychological blow it lands is as devastating as the points denied.
“It’s a sickening blow when you’re attacking really well,” said Farrell.
Irish No.8 Caelan Doris has led the way.
He had 22 tackles to his credit against the Scots and is likely to be equally busy on Saturday.
The All Blacks are hard to gauge, scoring points for fun against three poor sides Namibia, Italy and Uruguay, although they took 20 minutes to breach the latter’s defence.
But if the Irish are on the same level as the French and the Springboks then the All Blacks can expect little in terms of points.
Indeed a record 35-7 loss to the Boks in their final warm-up match and then a 27-13 defeat to France in the pool game may be a fairer reflection of where they stand.
But do not suggest that to Ireland’s veteran scrum-half Conor Murray.
“The threat and the aura around the All Blacks is definitely still there,” said Murray.
“That’s the challenge.”
Those outside the Irish camp might be fixated over whether Farrell’s side can end the quarter-final jinx, but it is doubtful he has allowed the players to focus on it.
Indeed the freedom and confidence with which they have played so far is on another plane to any of their previous campaigns at the sport’s quadrennial showpiece.
A large part of this can be credited to performance director Gary Keegan, who Farrell brought in to deal with the players’ mindsets.
Keegan has already reset their thinking about being ranked world No.1, making them comfortable with the label and that they earned it.
That has made 48-year-old Farrell’s task easier.
“I suppose an inferiority complex is what’s happened in the past, as far as getting to world No.1 and thinking that we’re going to fall off a cliff, because this shouldn’t be happening to Ireland,” said Farrell.
“I think what we’ve learned to do is throw ourselves into big challenges and try to meet them head on and embrace that.” AFP