Ireland’s tenacity versus New Zealand’s ruthlessness. Take the two head coaches and ask them to pick out the characteristic they most admire in their opponents ahead of tomorrow’s World Cup and their answers provide an excellent taste of the contest awaiting us at Tokyo Stadium.
Steve Hansen and Joe Schmidt unveiled their matchday squads yesterday and though they were in different parts of the Japanese capital they were united by a common theme of mutual respect.
That should come as no surprise given the close-run nature of their head-to-head meetings since Schmidt became Ireland boss in 2013 and very nearly got his tenure off to the perfect start in Dublin in just his third Test at the helm, only for Hansen’s All Blacks to land a last-kick conversion to steal a 24-22 victory.
The result may have continued New Zealand’s more than a century-long dominance in this fixture but the dynamic between the two rugby nations was shifting to a more equitable footing and two victories for Ireland in the last three meetings have confirmed that Schmidt’s Ireland have earned the respect of the back-to-back world champions.
If Chicago in November 2016 and the 40-29 victory at Soldier Field to break a 111-year duck was the breakthrough that finally caught their attention then last November’s 16-9 win at the Aviva Stadium, keeping the All Blacks tryless, was an affirmation that Ireland were not a team to be ignored.
So when Hansen yesterday replied to the enquiry for the single attribute that made the Irish such tough opponents, there was no lip service being paid, only an honesty borne of experience.
“They’re tenacious,” the All Blacks head coach said.
They play a pretty structured game and they’re good at what they know they’re good at. They don’t wander too much off the script. They’re not a team that give you a lot of opportunities through mistakes.
"They’re pretty good at keeping the ball when they keep it. When they kick it, they kick it to put pressure on you, rather than to give you a free shot.
“You’ve just got to adapt and adjust to what’s happening in the game. We’ve made a lot of changes since we last played them so it will be interesting to see if those changes work or not.”
The All Blacks’ personnel may be different and the irresistible attacking game refined even further with the deployment of twin playmakers in Richie Mo’unga at fly-half and Beauden Barrett at full-back but many of the strengths remain the same and Schmidt was asked to name one thing his side had to get right against the world’s number one team.
He offered an aspect of their game that has been a theme in the Ireland camp’s assessments of them since they learned on Sunday that it would New Zealand rather than South Africa facing them in the last eight.
“I think most coaches would say transition. If you turn ball over to them they’re ferociously dangerous,” Schmidt said. “Their speed to transition from defence to attack is something that everybody fears about the All Blacks.
They are so quick to make the most of it. They have athletes who have skills, who have speed and they have an innate sense of this attacking mentality that they are almost wired for it. So, they’re going to do it very quickly and trying to keep up with the speed that they do it is very difficult.
“I remember we were late up to the coaches box in Chicago and I think we got off to a good start and then there was one turnover and I think Waisake Naholo shot through a gap in the blink of an eye — those are the sorts of players that they’ve got.
“That second try they scored against South Africa (is another example). Again, a kick pass was part of the lead-up but I suppose those expansive skills that they’ve got, it makes them incredibly dangerous.
“They’ve got set plays, they’re strong in the set-piece, they’ve got all those other elements but if you were going to pick something out, their transition attack is probably what most teams worry most about with them.”
Schmidt confirmed the starting line-up that appeared in the Irish Examiner yesterday morning, with Rob Kearney coming in at full-back for his 95th cap in place of Jordan Larmour and Garry Ringrose back at outside centre with Robbie Henshaw shifting inside to fill the void left by Bundee Aki’s three-week suspension, which Ireland have decided not to appeal, preferring to let the Connacht midfielder stick to his squad duties of helping to prepare the team for Saturday rather than being dragged away from the training field for more time in front of a disciplinary hearing.
The other change sees Peter O’Mahony return at blindside flanker with Tadhg Beirne moving onto the bench as a replacement lock with Larmour, the man of the match against Samoa last Saturday, providing outside backs cover and Rhys Ruddock promoted to the 23 as a back-row replacement.
Hooker Niall Scannell retains his place as back-up to captain Rory Best with positional rival Sean Cronin out of the Ireland squad with a neck injury, Ulster’s Rob Herring arriving in Tokyo yesterday to replace the Leinster front-rower.
No such injury issues for the All Blacks but plenty of talking points in selection of the matchday squad as Hansen promoted Codie Taylor as starting hooker at the expense of Dane Coles and Jack Goodhue starting at outside centre in place of the vastly experienced Ryan Crotty and keeping Sonny Bill Williams on the bench as part of a set of replacements the head coach feels could make a significant impact on the contest.
“Those extra fresh legs could be the difference maybe,” Hansen said. “We’re very fortunate with our bench, it’s strong and has been for a long time. When you look at the experience that’s on that bench, it does give you a bit of confidence.”