And so it has come to pass, as has seemed both inevitable and a tad daunting, for the last two weeks. If this Ireland are to boldly go where no Irish team has ever gone before in a World Cup and reach a first ever semi-final then they will merely have to dethrone the back-to-back world champions New Zealand in Tokyo next Saturday. That’s all.
Japan’s 28-21 win over Scotland on Sunday – a riotous, ridiculously thrilling exchange of high tempo, attacking rugby – perhaps made more people realise that Ireland actually lost to a damned fine side two weeks ago. It also sent many millions of Brave Blossoms fans into raptures on a bank holiday weekend, and meant the hosts topped Pool A and secured a quarter-final against South Africa in Tokyo Stadium next Sunday.
Ireland will play the All Blacks the day before in the same ground (kick-off 7.15pm/11.15am Irish time) after England and Australia clash in Oita Stadium in the first quarter-final. Wales and France meet there next Sunday.
Ireland have only met the All Blacks in a World Cup once before, losing 43-19 in a 1995 World Cup pool stages in Johannesburg, but at least go into this meeting – an aptly defining game for the Joe Schmidt era – after ending a wait of 111 years and 28 matches for their first of two wins in the last three meetings.
Ireland won 40-29 in Chicago and 16-9 in the Aviva Stadium, and if the Irish defence coach, Andy Farrell, has learned one lesson from the four meetings under his watch, it’s this: “You’ve got to score points. There’s no doubt about it. You’ve got to score points against the All Blacks, because they’re a dangerous threat.
“You’ve got to take your game to them, and I think we’ve been able to do it in the past. Whoever has beaten them of late has taken their game to them. But they’re a pretty formidable side. You have to play your own game and score points because there’s no doubt they will.”
Hard to beat
While forewarned is forearmed, one ventures that the All Blacks might not relish playing Ireland either.
“We’d like to think that nobody thinks it’s nice playing against Ireland,” said Farrell. “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 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,” he said in reference to Saturday’s 47-5 win over Samoa.
“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.”
The perception going into Ireland’s Pool A finale on Saturday was that their quarter-final opponents would be comparatively well rested whereas Joe Schmidt’s side would be extended physically. In the event, Ireland’s performance ensures they will move on to Tokyo on Monday with a renewed spring in their step and in most respects better off for having had that game.
“I think so. I certainly think so, yea,” said Farrell. “You’re reviewing and you look at your plan from last week and you say ‘did we stick with that plan? Did we do it on point?’ And then we move on to the next game.
“The next game is completely different to the one that’s just been. So we draw a line in the sand to some degree really, and focus on what’s coming our way. It’s a big old week coming up. But it’s a brilliant place to be.”
Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals of a World Cup, losing at that stage on six occasions. However, Farrell was adamant that history will not weigh on Ireland’s minds.
“Not at all. Honestly, it wouldn’t be anyone’s thinking within the management, never mind the playing group, not for one second, because there’s a job to do, and we’ll give it our best shot.”
As to what gives him belief that Ireland can break through this glass ceiling, Farrell said: “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.”
An aspect to Ireland’s preparation was the nine-day turnaround since the win over Russia, a weekend off, a change of location and the arrival of many wives, girlfriends and families in time for Saturday’s game, as was encouraged by the squad’s management to lift spirits.
After four weeks away from home, especially for those with children, this was a timely boost for the players’ wellbeing.
“It’s huge,” admitted Farrell. “You know what, we walked back into the room last night and the families were in there and I actually thought to myself ‘thank God we won’ because some of them had only just arrived. It would have been a disaster if they’d just arrived and then they were straight back home on Monday.
“It’s so pleasing to see the boys with their families and just be able to see the smiles on everyone’s faces, because ultimately that’s what it’s all about. It’s proud moments for families to come over here and see their sons doing unbelievably well, playing in a World Cup, and watching their sons perform and get through to a World Cup quarter-final. So it’s great that they get to stick around.”
It will be the toughest quarter-final yet to decide for how much longer.