Hammer the hammer. It’s an expression normally reserved for those operating between the white lines but one that seems perfectly applicable in a wider context now that Steve Hansen has identified Joe Schmidt’s meticulous nature as a possible Achilles heel before New Zealand and Ireland meet on Saturday in their World Cup quarter-final.
Schmidt’s attention to detail and fastidiousness is legion after almost a decade pulling the strings at Leinster and Ireland. And that work ethic and attention to all sorts of minutiae is reflected in an Irish side that has earned such success under his keen eye by doing the simple things well through endless repetition on the training ground.
But the All Blacks have been duly warned. Losses to Ireland, in Chicago in 2016 and in Dublin last year, have put the back-to-back world champions on notice ahead of their next meeting, in Tokyo, and Hansen was in typically mischievous mood when he set the scene on Monday.
“We’ve got weaknesses like everybody else, so you’ve got to look at your own weaknesses as much as anybody else’s,” said the head coach. “You know that Joe does a lot of studies, so that can be a strength and a weakness. I might be able to set him up.”
Hansen loves to chuck these verbal grenades. He set up last November’s meeting with Ireland by claiming that the winner would be the best team in the world and he reacted afterwards by wondering aloud how Ireland would cope with that monkey on their back. Not well was the answer.
Ireland’s form has been patchy at best in 2019 but they showed signs of that familiar mechanical excellence again in Saturday’s 45-7 defeat of Samoa despite having played more than 50 minutes with 14 men after Bundee Aki’s dismissal.
Ireland hardly play an exuberant brand of rugby and Hansen was effusive about Japan’s thrilling style when asked for his thoughts on their defeat of Scotland, but the Kiwi coach has learned to respect what a Schmidt team brings to the table.
They’re pretty set on how they play, just like we are. They play to their strengths. Conor Murray does a lot of kicking and they use Sexton to drive them around the park and their big forwards to carry and why would they want to change? That’s been very successful for them.
Hansen promised there would be no complacency on their part, not when they have lost two of the last three games between the sides, although there was a remark thrown into the pot about how the past bears no relevance on what’s to come.
“There’s a lot of respect from both sides. We played them in November and it was a titanic struggle and on the day they were the better side. Most teams we play get up 10% better than they normally do and they’re no different.
“The big difference here is it’s a do-or-die game for both teams,” he explained. “Both teams are in good nick — fresh, excited — and, I can only speak on behalf of ourselves, we’re really looking forward to the challenge.”
The All Blacks have blazed their way through to this stage. They have registered as many tries (22) as they have points conceded against them but their passage has not been without some difficulties off the field.
The Barrett brothers — Beauden, Scott, and Jordie — will enter the game having suffered the sudden loss of their grandfather Edward Michael Barrett. Known as ‘Ted’, he passed away on Sunday at the age of 78 back home in New Zealand.
The team as a whole had already been forced to recalibrate due to the issues brought to bear by Typhoon Hagibis .
Add in the fact that their last two games were cakewalks against Namibia and Canada and it will actually be over a month since their last proper test when they withstood a ferocious examination from South Africa to claim an impressive win in Yokohama.
Hansen and captain Kieran Read have both done their best to portray their extended and unexpected break in the best possible light while playing down the perception that the All Blacks have struggled in the past when there have been gaps between games. Both have spoken in mysterious tones about a full-on training game that was conducted behind closed doors last Friday.
For those of us with any knowledge of GAA, it sounded for all the world like one of those legendary training sessions held by the Kilkenny hurlers in Nowlan Park. The real thing still awaits.