Joe Schmidt wasn’t having any of Steve Hansen’s mind games after Ireland saw off the All Blacks last November.
The Kiwi coach had kicked off the week of that game by stating these were the two best sides in the world and he ended it by adding that Ireland were now top of the tree and the favourites for the World Cup as a result of that 16-9 win in Lansdowne Road.
Schmidt does the ‘aw shucks’ shtick better than most and he was ready with the rejoinder. Among the qualifiers he offered was the home advantage Ireland enjoyed in front of a passionate crowd and the not insignificant fact that New Zealand were at the back end of a long and wearying global trek that would involve eleven games in 15 weeks across five continents.
One Kiwi media outlet went further this week by arguing that the coaching staff had to shoulder much of the blame for a team that was poorly selected and completely outcoached. Produce the right template for this World Cup quarter-final, it added, and victory will be in the bag.
But this is a different All Black team to the one that lost at Lansdowne Road. Seven of the XV selected for this meeting didn’t start that one, both Ardie Savea and Beauden Barrett are in different positions and four starters didn’t even make this World Cup.
“We have changed a lot of things in the last 12 months. We had to as some performances last year we’re not proud of,” said assistant coach Ian Foster of that evolution process. “It’s a different group. They’re excited and confident to play. Our challenge around the big game is to make sure we don’t dampen that confidence. We have to be smart.
We are playing a team that likes to suffocate you. We have to respect that, but at the same time we just have to make sure that we go out there and do what we want to do well.
This is not the settled side that claimed back-to-back titles four years ago and the fluidity of the selection issues that Hansen, Foster and the rest of the staff have mulled over is highlighted in stark relief by a constantly changing midfield.
Hansen has fielded six midfield combinations across the ten games since that loss to Ireland. That’s a staggering contrast to the Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu partnership which straddled two World Cup finals and 62 games in total. It’s not that Hansen is short of options.
Nganai Laumape started two games in the last year but couldn’t even make the squad. Ryan Crotty, breaker of Irish hearts six years ago, can’t make the matchday 23 here and Sonny Bill Williams will be tasked with prising open the Irish defence from off the bench.
“It was a tough decision. Not so much in who to put in but who to leave out. We just felt for this game that (Anton) Lienert-Brown is playing really well at the moment and is full of energy. Jack (Goodhue) has come back from his hamstring injury and got back to his previous level.
“We have Sonny there and he’s playing the best I have seen him play in 12 or 18 months and he has a lot of energy there, too,” Foster explained.
This is just the third time Goodhue and Lienert-Brown start together. The back row of Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Kieran Read have huddled up just four times in black jerseys. The Richie Mo’unga/Beauden Barrett ploy is still in its infancy.
This is still an incredibly potent side, South Africa experienced as much in Yokohama last month, but ten of the men starting this next game were part of the XV that got a hiding off Australia in Perth in early August. They are gettable.
Nehe Milner-Skudder aside, the team that beat Australia in the 2015 final was littered with experience. This vintage has plenty of test know-how in its ranks but it is less grizzled. Especially so on the wings where George Bridge and Sevu Reece have just eleven caps between them.
“They’ve certainly impressed at Super Rugby level,” said Foster. “The way they came in and took their opportunities in what was a pretty significant game for us, that second Bledisloe Cup test, showed us that they could handle the pressure and they have continued that.
“There is a little bit of fearlessness about them. Some of it might be because they haven’t been to a World Cup before and don’t know what is at stake in some sense.”
Ireland will surely hope to use that innocence against them.