The moment of truth has arrived. Today has been a long time coming for Joe Schmidt and his players as they finally reach the objective they have been planning for since the World Cup draw put them in New Zealand’s firing line.
Of course, it could have been, should have been South Africa they were facing this weekend as the World Cup moves into the knockout stages. But that loss to Japan during the pool stages meant Schmidt’s side were no longer in control of their own destiny. So bring on the All Blacks in the second of today’s quarter-finals and let’s go at it one more time in a rivalry that has become more equitable over the past few years of Schmidt’s watch as head coach.
No game in the four Tests between Schmidt’s Ireland and Steve Hansen’s New Zealand from 2013-‘18 has borne any resemblance to the other. From Ireland’s fast start and slow fade as the All Blacks pipped them at the post in Dublin six years ago, to the fast-track try-fest in Chicago in 2016, the brutal “Black-lash” a fortnight later, and the nailbiting chess match of 11 months ago.
Two wins apiece then and both everything and nothing to glean from each one. There is one thing for certain, however. That it will be a tall order, as always, for Ireland to record a third victory in four matches against the hat-trick-chasing defending champions. If Ireland are to end their quarter-final misery after six unsuccessful visits to the last eight then they will need to deliver the performances of their careers at Tokyo Stadium.
A near faultless, physically intense, disciplined, tactically astute and well-executed performance. That is not something we have seen from Ireland in Japan these past four weeks but that is not to say it is beyond this group of players.
Twelve of them put together such a collective performance in Dublin last November to beat the All Blacks 16-9 that was a defensive masterclass, the world champions kept tryless and frustrated on an evening to remember at the Aviva Stadium.
This time around, the personnel at Schmidt’s disposal is arguably stronger, with Conor Murray back at scrum-half, Robbie Henshaw in midfield to partner Garry Ringrose, and an in-form Iain Henderson starts in the second row alongside James Ryan.
There is confidence coursing through this squad, a statement that would have seemed the stuff of fantasy just two Saturdays ago as the Brave Blossoms took control of the Pool A contest and overpowered and outflanked a sorry Ireland side.
It has taken a while to get back on track, through the 35-0 win over Russia five days later and into an extended nine-day turnaround that did wonders for morale and produced a much more fluent performance in the 47-5 victory over Samoa.
This quarter-final, though, is what it has always been all about. What has gone before, from a disappointing Six Nations campaign, through a heavy-legged debacle against England in Twickenham to a fitful Pool A campaign, can be marked down as the means to this end and Johnny Sexton yesterday said as much.
With Ireland taking their captain’s run training session closer to their Tokyo Bay hotel yesterday, the fly-half made a lone journey across the Japanese capital to do his regular kicking practice in-stadium on the eve of the game. He also appeared in front of the media for the second time this week, a rarity in itself but wholly welcome, and agreed that this last-eight knockout game has been the focus throughout 2019.
“It’s been a long time in the back of our minds, this quarter-final,” Sexton said. "It was always going to be the case that if we did get through our pool, we were going to play South Africa or New Zealand, with respect to the other sides.
“That was the likelihood and we’re here now. It’s a little bit surreal to think it, I can’t believe it’s finally here. This time four years ago, I was a supporter like you guys and it’s not a great place to be.
“So we’re really looking forward to getting out there on the big stage and trying to show what we can do against the best team in the world, a team that hasn’t lost a World Cup game in two World Cups. It’s going to be an enormous challenge but one we’re excited and eager about. We want to make people at home really proud.”
Sexton, 34, believes the matchday squad of 23 named by Schmidt on Thursday is as good as any of the great teams he has marshalled in an illustrious career that has brought him European titles, Six Nations championships, a Grand Slam and the 2018 World Player of the Year award.
Yeah right up there, right up there. That’s where we get our little bit of belief and bit of confidence from, when you look around the circle (of players).
“I’m not talking about the experienced lads, but you look around and see guys like Garry Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan, the guys that are just top quality people and players, and then you look and see all the experienced guys who have been around the block.
“So that’s what gives us belief and confidence. But in terms of the team, yeah, right up there and our biggest strength is our collective, and we’d pretty much do anything for each other.”
The All Blacks will put that sentiment to the sternest test today, Sexton will be in no doubt about that as Ireland bid for history on a number of levels, not least reaching the semi-finals for the first time.
The odds are stacked in New Zealand’s favour, as they always seem to be, but watching this Irish squad go about their business this week has been instructive and encouraging. This is a group that does not fear the All Blacks as their predecessors might have done.
It also knows how to beat them and while they have not won a World Cup quarter-final in a green jersey before, there is no lack of knockout rugby know-how in this side. They will need to be close to perfect in everything they do but they have been before and with so much on the line, this battle-hardened team can do so again here in Tokyo.