That New Zealand have stated they will target Johnny Sexton is hardly a galloping shock. Jonny’s had that for a lot of his career, but it remains fundamentally important to Ireland’s chances today that he is on the pitch for 60-65 minutes.
He is going to have a pivotal role in several aspects of Ireland’s game plan, including the most basic of all — the scoreboard. Jonny has scored 26 points so far in this World Cup, the same as his All Black counterpart Richie Mo’unga. Sexton will certainly need to be adding another 10-15 points to that today as Ireland will need to score over 20 points to win this game. And maybe a bit more.
Richie Mo’unga is made for this stage. The bigger the fixture, the more excited his rugby brain becomes. But this is new territory for the Crusader ten. And Ireland can put him in situations he hasn’t dealt with. For instance, Ireland go 3-0, 6-0, 9-0 in front, then it really is game on.
Richie certainly won’t lack the rugby creativity to put the All Blacks on the front foot in a hurry, but he is still inexperienced on this stage and Ireland will look to rush him, pressure him, force him into risky business.
We had an interesting first few weeks at the Crusaders. Being told he didn’t have the work-rate and work ethic of a world-class ten didn’t sit well. But we got there bit by bit. He has that lovely aura about him, confidence on the right side of arrogance.
There is a spark to Richie, you’d enjoy going for coffee with him. But watch your seat or he’d whip it from under you before you settled. There’s a lesson there for Ireland. Mo’unga deserves their fullest, and constant, attention.
Usually when we discuss the merits of the respective front fives, it relates to their prowess at scrum-time or in the lineout.
But this quarter-final pits against each other some of rugby’s outstanding forward talents. New Zealand have changed up their defence and if anything, it’s got better in recent times.
Ireland only scored 12 points against Japan — today they will need twice that amount against a far better defence. But it’s with the ball that these All Black forward can wreck you.
They have possibly the best three second rows in the competition with Scott Barrett not even starting behind Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Flanker Ardie Savea had been identified as an impact sub because of a dearth of options in the position but he’s developed into one of these players Steve Hansen and his coaches have helped get the best out of himself.
It’s a daunting pack, but is Ireland’s inferior? Ireland’s props are the best in the world. Cian Healy is a freak and Tadhg Furlong is just an X-Factor player who can do damage with or without the ball.
This is the ultimate test for James Ryan and Iain Henderson, and for their back row, with Peter O’Mahony the key target in the lineout. But it’s a pack with energy and attitude. They face a full deck today in terms of All Black strength. Their individual and collective best is required.
RWC Podcast: Buying into the confidence in the air around Irish camp