‘Smart’ Ireland huge challenge to All Blacks, says Foster

No one could know it at the time but Ireland’s relationship with the All Blacks changed irrevocably in November of 2013.

‘Smart’ Ireland huge challenge to All Blacks, says Foster

No one could know it at the time but Ireland’s relationship with the All Blacks changed irrevocably in November of 2013. That’s regardless of the fact that a Ryan Crotty try and an Aaron Cruden conversion pulled victory out of the fire for the visitors that day in Dublin.

The four games played between the sides prior to that had been decided by an average margin of 28.75 points. When they met in Hamilton in the summer of 2012, New Zealand won 60-0. Now Ireland approach Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final having won two of the last three.

The points difference across the last four meetings has flipped to +4 in favour of the Six Nations side. Only four Irishmen have started that quartet of games. Devin Toner, Rory Best, and Rob Kearney are three of them, Jonathan Sexton is the other.

The current world player of the year, Sexton is the man who makes Ireland tick and everyone knows it. The Leinster man’s importance to this Irish team has only become clearer in Japan given his performances against Scotland, Russia, and Samoa and, maybe even more so, with his absence through injury for the defeat to Japan which has directed Ireland into the Kiwi’s path this weekend.

Many an opposing player and coach has been asked before about whether it was their intention to ‘rattle’ the Irish 10 ,whose habit of playing so close to the line, added to his abilities and importance, make him such a juicy target for the big hit.

Matt Todd, the Crusaders back row, put it succinctly when pointing out that the plan of campaign with any opposition 10 is to shrink their space and their time and make life hell but that intentions and actions are two different things.

“Every team has got their strengths and weaknesses,” said assistant coach Ian Foster. “We know Sexton is important to their team and we know that a lot of the ball does go through his hands. They’re a smart rugby team and they’ve proven that.

People can say what they like about their attacking style and defensive style but they’re efficient and they do it well. That’s what makes it really exciting for us because we’re playing a team that knows how to play and what greater challenge could you have?

It took Foster time to warm up in Tuesday’s media briefing. Questions about the Bundee Aki suspension, Andy Farrell’s success against the Kiwis with various teams in recent years, and the announcement that Nigel Owens would referee their quarter-final were all dispatched with speed and minimum insight.

“My reaction to it?” he said of Aki’s three-game suspension for the red card received against Samoa. “I haven’t really got a reaction to it as I’m pretty much focused on what we do but it’s pretty consistent with what we’ve seen at this tournament.”

There was more engagement when the conversation turned away from individuals and towards their next opponents who, though they lost to Japan, were given due praise for the comprehensive nature of their wins against Scotland and Samoa.

Foster spoke about not making assumptions about the challenges which opponents will present on any given day while, at the same time, offering considered answers to posers about Ireland’s use of box-kicks and their habit of retaining the ball for long periods through their forwards.

All of it sprinkled with the odd special trick from the Joe Schmidt playbook?

“I don’t mean to be rude but you’re asking me to guess what another coach is thinking. You’ve got to ask him (his thoughts). We’re assuming, based on past behaviour, that they’ll come out with a plan which they think is good enough to beat us. Will that involve some special plays? Probably.”

There is a very human tendency for players and teams to tighten as tournaments funnel towards a final and the stakes begin increase. Foster knows that but the attack coach stressed the need for his players to execute what they see regardless of the pressure on their shoulders.

Sexton made a similar point about Ireland. The out-half touched on the need for Ireland to keep pushing the envelope, mindful of the day six years ago when they took their foot off the gas and Crotty caught them on the line. As Tadhg Furlong warned this week, Ireland can’t go into their shell.

For Ireland to succeed on Saturday and make a first World Cup semi-final it will require the sort of close-to-complete performance which has been beyond them against some of the game’s top teams lately. Their last display at that level came in beating the All Blacks last November.

“I can’t remember it,” said Foster of that loss. “No, that’s not true. We just got beaten by a good Irish team. That was a different time, different place. Is it relevant? Perhaps. They would have learned some stuff, we learned some stuff. We actually don’t get too stuck in the past, it’s more about the challenge that’s in front of us. This is a World Cup knockout game and it’s actually about what happens this week, not what happened in the last two years.”

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