PARIS – Ireland will seek to at last break through their World Cup glass ceiling by beating New Zealand to reach the semi-finals for the first time on Saturday.
Andy Farrell’s team, ranked number one 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 on Saturday would be Ireland head coach Andy Farrell’s fourth in five meetings with New Zealand, including a historic series win in New Zealand last year.
AFP Sport picks out three things that could be key once Wayne Barnes whistles for play to begin at 1900 GMT at the Stade de France:
Defence is key
“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 says, the pyschological 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 this 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.”
Schmidt — Irish poacher turned Kiwi gamekeeper
Joe Schmidt deserves gratitude for setting the Irish on the path which made them feared opponents.
It may be grudging if the All Blacks beat the Irish with Schmidt having joined them as an attack coach.
Indeed it was on his watch that New Zealand beat the Irish in the first Test last year as he took charge of training while head coach Ian Foster and other staff were laid low by Covid.
They returned and pressure mounted on Foster as they went on to lose the series 2-1.
Schmidt, 58, had run his course with the Irish when, at the 2019 World Cup, his one-dimensional approach had been found out by the opposition. The 46-14 humbling by the All Blacks was a brutal final blow.
However, while Farrell has changed many things Schmidt will still be able to give the All Blacks valuable insights.
“Joe just sees the game in a very detailed view,” said centre Rieko Ioane.
“Especially with us backs, his work in noticing trends in other teams’ attack and defence is what separates him, and just the detail he goes into.”
Irish unburdened by history
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 number one, 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 number one 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.”