Opinion: Ireland deserve favouritism but the All Blacks have a path to victory

Geoff Parkes
Geoff Parkes previews the Ireland v All Blacks fixture.

Geoff Parkes previews the Ireland v All Blacks fixture.

Tasked with identifying how New Zealand might go about beating Ireland in this Saturday’s quarter-final in Paris, the obvious response is to say, “with great difficulty”.

With 17 consecutive wins under their belt, Andy Farrell’s side is as bullet-proof as any in recent memory. Nothing has been left to chance. Depth has been cultivated, and the pick of the talent given reign, so that players like Dan Sheehan, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Jonathan Sexton, Hugo Keenan and others, are among the very best, if not the best in the world in their positions.

Around them, players like James Lowe, Mack Hansen, Bundee Aki and Jamison Gibson-Park have been allowed to develop from competent, capable Super Rugby players, to bona-fide Test stars; Aki in particular, in the midst of making a strong case for player of this World Cup.

Dominant against Scotland

A strong South African side – many pundits’ pick for the tournament – has already been seen off. And while I never believed for a minute that Scotland was in the same ballpark as the ‘big four’, there was still something mightily impressive about the way Ireland smacked them between the eyes then on the backside last weekend; 36-14 with things well and truly over by half-time.

Befitting of a champion side, and a signature of this one, it was Ireland’s demonstration of their all-round capability that once again impressed. From the rapier-like incisions and clinical finishing of the two opening backline scores, to the nigh impenetrable defensive wall that pushed Finn Russell further and further towards the sideline, making the inevitable runner on the cut-back all the easier to pick off, there was almost nothing to fault.

Even Ireland’s lineout, the one disappointment from their win over South Africa, was back on song. Find someone who will tell you what Ireland’s weakness is and I’ll tell you you’re talking to a straw clutcher.

And still there is more. The so-called ‘sea of green’ is more a heaving ocean swell, into which any vessel sails at its own risk. Given the way the All Blacks have braved Ellis Park in recent years a hostile environment is nothing they will fear, but even if they neutralise the crowd from their own point of view, there is still the matter of every Ireland player growing an inch taller, a result of what will be overwhelming Irish support inside the Stade de France.

Also perfectly timed is Ireland’s self-belief with respect to playing, and beating, the All Blacks. Four years ago in Yokohama, they were obliterated, 46-14, but nobody believes that circumstances this time around are the same.

Back then, Ireland had failed to convince during pool play, succumbing to host nation Japan, while New Zealand had impressively dispatched South Africa in their opening match and, after some easier pool matches, were primed and ready to lay waste to whoever stood in their way in the quarter-final.

Since then, Ireland has done what was once considered nigh impossible; travel to New Zealand and win a series. If the only concern today resides around a couple of injuries – and we will know soon enough when selection is confirmed – Ireland cannot have been more impressive in ticking all of the boxes in readiness for this test.

From New Zealand’s perspective, it is possible to acknowledge each and every one of Ireland’s strengths, and still retain confidence that the All Blacks can get the job done.

This despite two sound recent defeats; to South Africa in London, and to France on opening night. And the 2-1 series loss to Ireland last year.

In truth, that series was really about one match, the third, deciding rubber, in Wellington. The All Blacks jumped the Irish in Auckland before they were ready, then were cruelled by a red card to Angus Ta’avao in Dunedin, who became an unwitting victim of World Rugby’s move to punish head on head contact, even if accidental.

In the decider, Ireland started brilliantly, the All Blacks found another gear to fight back in the third quarter, before Ireland steadied and won, 32-22.

For what it’s worth, Saturday night’s referee, Wayne Barnes, was on the whistle that night. Given where foul play protocols and guidelines have shifted to, the head clash that saw Ireland’s Andrew Porter break Brodie Retallick’s cheek bone would almost certainly have seen Porter’s card upgraded to red, and him prevented from reappearing.

That’s worth mentioning because no matter how fans of each side so desperately want to see their team win, neither wants the match to be decided by rugby’s card lotto.

Retallick is also worth mentioning because he was absent from both recent All Black defeats, both of them notable for a lack of steel and abrasiveness in the All Black’s forward effort.

The four most important men for New Zealand are their three locks, Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett, and loose forward Shannon Frizell. Without their physical presence and directness, New Zealand cannot hope to mitigate Ireland’s excellence at the breakdown.

Put simply, if the All Black pack fails to stamp authority and consistently deliver front-foot ball to Aaron Smith, their backline will not win the match scrambling from behind the advantage line, or relying on flukey cross-field kicks.

Ian Foster’s run-in

With hard-shouldered captain Sam Cane also adopting a central defensive role, that is the All Blacks’ pathway to victory; edging the breakdown and gain-line battle, and executing clinically when any opportunities arise.

Maligned throughout his All Black stint, coach Ian Foster has one, two or three matches left in his career. Helpfully, he and his team have been in this situation before.

Last year, the All Blacks went to Ellis Park after a limp loss in Mbombela, with Scott Robertson as good as installed in the coaching seat, and Foster – staring down another almost certain loss – as good as toast.

Their 35-23 win was astounding; for its physical intent, and for the demonstration of how deep the players were prepared to dig, to keep their coach in his job.

There’s more than an element of that same mentality around this week. And that’s one of the reasons why the record for consecutive ‘Tier One’ Test wins tops out at 18 matches. No matter how good any side is, like Ireland is, over any period of time, there is always an opposition side, or an intense tournament like a World Cup, ready and waiting to bring you undone.

Since 1991, the song ‘World in Union’ was adopted as the official music anthem of the Rugby World Cup. Absent this time around, that void has been filled by The Cranberries’, ‘Zombie’.

Should Ireland make history and advance beyond the quarter-finals for the first time at a World Cup, that song will be sure to reverberate all the way from St Denis to the Seine and beyond.

There are any number of reasons to say it will. On the other hand, I’m not convinced the All Blacks are going to let it happen.

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