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Here we go, then. On Saturday morning Ireland meet the All Blacks for the fifth and final time in the Joe Schmidt era, and this one is the biggest of them all.
It’s a Rugby World Cup quarter-final against the defending, back-to-back champions in Tokyo. It’s a chance for Ireland to go where they’ve never gone before and reach the tournament semi-finals.
It’s also an incredibly daunting assignment. Steve Hansen’s New Zealand are the best team in the world, and have a level of World Cup nous and experience which Ireland can’t match.
The All Blacks were clinical and slick in their statement performance of the pool stages, as they beat a resurgent Springboks side 23-13 in Yokohama.
In comparison Ireland have looked laboured for much of the tournament and indeed the year – confident wins over Scotland and Samoa bookended the pool stages, with a defeat to Japan and an agricultural win over Russia coming in between.
But despite this, Joe Schmidt’s side know the All Blacks are beatable – they have won two of their last three meetings with the world champions, the most recent coming in Dublin last November.
Not many teams beat the All Blacks in consecutive fixtures – something Ireland discovered in brutal fashion as they were beaten 21-9 in Dublin in November 2016, two weeks after their landmark 40-29 victory in Chicago.
And writing for the New Zealand Herald, Gregor Paul suggests New Zealand’s reaction on that tempestuous night was out of character.
“The All Blacks needed to respond and they needed to win. Ireland had out-muscled them in Chicago so the All Blacks, feeling the most intense pressure for the first time under Read, decided they needed to meet Ireland’s fire and fury with their own and 80 minutes of carnage ensued at Aviva Stadium.
“Under pressure, the All Blacks responded physically. Their tackling bordered on reckless at times. They pushed the boundaries at breakdowns and attempted to intimidate Ireland out of the contest.”
Last year’s 16-9 defeat at the Aviva Stadium will surely still rankle for the All Blacks – so how will they look to respond on Saturday, on the biggest stage of all?
Paul suggests they should trust their natural instincts. He writes: “That’s what Ireland fear the most – an All Blacks side that under pressure reverts to trait, but with the confidence
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