Rugby New Zealand vs Ireland, Rugby World Cup 2019: Pull up a chair and enjoy the fireworks

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They’ve done it before, so can they do it again? Ireland head into their quarter-final showdown against the All Blacks with recent history on their side. Two of the last three meetings between these giants have seen Joe Schmidt’s men emerge victorious – the first coming in Chicago three years ago, followed by the Dublin Test last year. For all their trials and tribulations at this Rugby World Cup, Ireland will know that this is mission possible.

More assuringly for Schmidt, 12 of those players who surged to glory at the Aviva Stadium 11 months ago take to the Tokyo turf this weekend. Conor Murray and centre Robbie Henshaw missed that encounter due to injury but both will be on hand this Saturday, with the Irish more or less operating at full strength – excluding Bundee Aki, whose red against Samoa has ruled him out of the rest of the tournament.

So far, so good. But despite Ireland’s recent exploits against New Zealand, this World Cup has demonstrated that the men in green aren’t the side they were in 2016 or 2018. There are, of course, some qualities that have endured: the iron defence (Ireland have conceded just two tries at this tournament), the organisation and structure, the assured kicking game, the attacking prowess of the likes of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls.

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But at times here in Japan, the side has felt like it’s been missing something distinctively, well, Irish. The blooded aggression. The zip and fizz. The fear factor. In the win over Russia – despite the convincing 35-0 scoreline – there was no firebrand rugby, no fluency, no flair. It was laboured and error-strewn – and this against a team which, for 20 minutes of the match, was one man down.

It was a similar story against the Japanese. Despite a bright start, as was the case in the Russia clash, Ireland were guilty of taking their foot off the pedal. The hosts made sure to punish such insouciance, their charged surges down the flanks and ferocity at the breakdown leaving the Irish spinning. Any such lapses in concentration during tomorrow’s showdown will be ruthlessly exploited by the All Blacks.

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Nonetheless, there is optimism among the side. Talisman Johnny Sexton – whose absence from the Russia and Japan matches can perhaps explain his team’s rough patches – is confident that the Irish are peaking at the right time.

“We’ve been building pretty well apart from that poor 60 minutes against Japan; everything else has pretty much gone to plan,” said Sexton earlier this week. “We haven’t hit our best performance yet

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