It might not have been the route they envisaged but Ireland have reached their initial destination, although the question remains whether this is finally the time to venture into virgin territory.
Quarter-finals at the World Cup are nothing new to Ireland, of course, but the path taken this time around was trying and unexpected having taken a wrong turn in Shizuoka a fortnight ago by losing to host nation in Japan.
And the Brave Blossoms delivered another blow yesterday, as collective Irish schadenfreude at Scotland’s demise in Pool A gave way to the realisation that Japan’s moment of rugby history in reaching the knockout stages for the first time had consigned Joe Schmidt’s side to a quarter-final against New Zealand in Tokyo this Saturday.
That was always the kicker after losing to the Japanese on September 28, that if Jamie Joseph’s warriors processed through Pool A unbeaten, Ireland would have to settle for the runner-up spot and a meeting with the back-back defending champions.
Yesterday’s thunderous win over the Scots in Yokohama saw that come to pass but at least Ireland have had time to deal with the likelihood and thankfully for the thousands of their supporters already in-country or about to arrive, they will head into Tokyo Stadium this weekend with an encouraging performance under their belts following a seven-try blow-out against Samoa at the Hakatanomori Stadium.
It was not perfect, particularly given Bundee Aki’s red card in the first half for a high tackle on Ulupano Seuteni that now puts the Ireland centre’s tournament in jeopardy as he heads into a disciplinary hearing today. Yet in the context of that deeply disappointing defeat to Japan and a patchy, scratchy win over Russia nine days earlier, this Ireland performance was a great leap forwards.
And so it’s back to pressing Irish noses up firmly against the glass ceiling that has been the quarter-finals since the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and applying a bit of pressure to see if it cracks.
One would like to think it is will be an Irish performance that can smash straight through it but the All Blacks may have something to say about that. So let us flip things on their head and suggest that Steve Hansen’s crew, which has lost twice to Joe Schmidt’s side in the last four meetings between these sides and been matched try for try, nine apiece, will not fancy coming up against Ireland again.
All Blacks skipper Kieran Read was certainly taking an interest in the outcome of Pool A as his squad enjoyed a weekend off in the wake of the Typhoon Hagibis-enforced cancellation of their Pool B finale against Italy.
Of Ireland’s win over the Samoans, Read said: “Pretty good, with a man down, to get a score like that. They were certainly pretty physically and tough up front. There’s a chance we could be playing them next; I’ll be watching (Scotland v Japan) pretty closely as well. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell, Schmidt’s successor in waiting, certainly agreed yesterday with that premise of no-one relishing facing his team.
“We’d like to think that nobody thinks it’s nice playing against Ireland,” Farrell said.
There’s one thing for sure, come the weekend it doesn’t really matter who we’re playing against, we’ll certainly be hard to beat, there’s no doubt about that.
“There’s been a good start to the tournament (for Ireland) and everyone’s reported on a levelling off or a blip along the way but there’s a nice bit of confidence from yesterday’s performance.
“Can that be better? Does it need to be better? One hundred per cent it does and that’s a good thing for us going forward as well.”
Farrell is certain history will not weigh on this 2019 squad and confidence that glass ceiling can be broken.
Asked why, he replied: “Our preparation. I thought last week our preparation was spot on. We got well rested but yet got across our work. I think you could see what we stood for out there. I thought our preparation was very good.
“We’ll go through that as well this week. It’s quite nice to have a seven-day turnaround to be able to get across our work and prepare properly. That’s certainly stood us in good stead in the past and I’m sure it will be the same.”
Yet it will need a phenomenally good Ireland performance to dethrone the World Cup kings, a team let us not forget who in going for a hat-trick of successive titles have a wealth of knockout rugby experience at Test level that Schmidt’s side simply can’t match.
The head coach recognises that but he also senses a turning of the tide for Ireland on the back of Saturday’s performance, albeit with a very different and extended metaphor.
“I feel that you’ve got to be at your very, very best to have a chance,” Schmidt said of the prospect of facing the country of his birth. “The All Blacks are the sort of team where you could be at your best but still not quite get the result because they weren’t number one in the world for 10 years and they weren’t back-to-back World Cup winners for no reason.
They’re that because of the personnel they have, because of the culture they have and the performances they manage to put together on a very, very regular basis.
“So for us, it would be, to a degree, a mountain to climb but after tonight, the lads, they got their boots on. They’ve taken a little bit of an ascent.
“Obviously the whole thing gets steeper next week but if it is the All Blacks, then we’ll look to scale those heights.”
J Larmour; K Earls, R Henshaw (A Conway, 62), B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery, 50), C Murray (L McGrath, 52); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 56), R Best (N Scannell, 50), T Furlong (A Porter, 45); I Henderson, James Ryan (J Kleyn, 56); T Beirne (P O’Mahony, 60), J van der Flier, CJ Stander.
B Aki 28 mins.
T Nanai-Williams; A Tuala (K Fonotia, 50, A Leiua, H Taefu, E Fidow; U Seuteni (T Pisi, 29), D Polataivao (P Cowley, 69); L Mulipola (P Alo-Emile, 53), S Lam (R Niuia, 46), M Alaalatoa (Jordan Lay, 46); T Paulo (R Niuia, 14-16; P Faasalele, 53), K Le’aupepe; C Vui, TJ Ioane (J Tyrell, 69), J Lam.
S Lam 6-16 mins, TJ Ioane 58-68
Nic Berry (Australia).