The build-up to this World Cup quarter-final would leave you scratching around for a sign, any kind of a sign, to make the wait for kick-off a bit more bearable.
The Ireland players didn’t do what they normally do the day before a game yesterday. Instead of having the captain’s run at the match-day stadium, they did a light session away from the cameras and close to their hotel to save on an estimated two-hour round trip across Tokyo city.
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Only Johnny Sexton turned up at Tokyo Stadium to do some kicking practice and he joked on his way onto the pitch that the team had a massive falling out. If there were nerves 24 hours out from the game, they weren’t evident.
What we didn’t get to see was how the rest were coping. How was Rory Best on the eve of potentially his last game? Did Joe Schmidt get much sleep over the past six days? Do they look worried, confident, overwhelmed by the enormity of a World Cup quarter-final against the All Blacks?
There is a line in the novel ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’: “A sign doesn’t mean anything unless you know how to interpret it.”
Two days ago, the effort to try and find the hotel where the All Blacks were staying in Minato, Tokyo was absolutely nothing like playing against them, but I’ll use the cheap analogy anyway. Just when you think you’ve cracked it, you’re nowhere near as close as you thought you were.
Later, in said hotel, New Zealand captain Kieran Read sat at the top table for a press conference. Just like Best, Read will retire from international rugby when this World Cup finishes, although he’ll continue to play rugby with his new Japanese club.
Read has a tendency to smile when he’s talking, which can be a bit disconcerting. So there he was, smiling away as he spoke until he was asked if New Zealand were a better team after those two defeats to Ireland. After an initial nervous laugh, Read wiped the smile off his own face before saying: “We certainly respect what the Irish team has done over those couple of games, but it’s a totally different ball game heading into this one.”
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How do you interpret that? Well, it wasn’t a sign, it was a statement.
What will Ireland’s statement be today? Because, never before in the history of Irish rugby has a game come with as much jeopardy as this World Cup quarter-final against the defending champions. Sure, it’s easy to say that because this game is the next game. But if we are to take World Cups as the pinnacle of all rugby competitions, then that sentiment holds and also because this is the most successful group of Ireland players to ever play a World Cup knock-out game.
Never before in a four-year cycle has an Irish team won a Grand Slam, a Test match in South Africa, a series win in Australia, beaten New Zealand twice and held the position of the No 1-ranked team in the world – whatever weight that really held.
But all that success is in danger of becoming a footnote if they fail to do what no Irish men’s senior team has ever done before and reach a World Cup semi-final.
The countdown to this quarter-final has been a wrestlemania between pessimism, optimism, realism and that reliable old trap of hope.
Minutes after winning the Grand Slam at Twickenham in March last year, Rob Kearney referenced the World Cup as being the one they’re after. If there was a button to fast-forward real life to the World Cup as soon as Ireland beat the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium 336 days ago, there would have been an-old fashioned family dash for the remote control.
But between November last year and right into this World Cup, we’ve witnessed an alarming drop in form. The Six Nations defeat to England left the players “broken”, according to Joe Schmidt, an admission that was in itself quite surprising as it came from a head coach whose default setting has always been to protect the entity of the team publicly.
On the other side of the world, the New Zealand head coach was sitting content in his prediction that Ireland might find being top dog a tough burden to carry. “Instead of being the hunters they are the hunted and it’s different,” Hansen said about Ireland last March. “It’s different when you’re sitting at the top of the tree. Not many teams cope with that well.”
It hasn’t just been Ireland’s form that has been questionable, but some of Schmidt’s decisions which didn’t need the benefit of hindsight for a reassurance that they were high-risk.
The decision to put Robbie Henshaw at full-back for the England game for his first Test start there, the decision to have the roof of the Principality Stadium open for the final Six Nations game against Wales which p****d off the Welsh and probably only added to their motivation to demolish Ireland, and look how that turned out.
Schmidt’s humility has been noted on many occasions throughout his Ireland career – like standing on his own in the tunnel away from the Grand Slam celebrations at Twickenham or not going to Monaco to accept his World Rugby Coach of the Year award last November. But the 2019 Six Nations left an obvious concern that Ireland had fallen into the hole of not evolving their game precisely at the point they needed to – with the label of being the best team in the world.
Hope comes into play today because history has shown that New Zealand tend to bring out the best in Schmidt’s Ireland. A few weeks before the start of the November Tests in 2013, Rob Kearney let slip in an interview that New Zealand was the game they were really targeting. They didn’t win that time, but we’ve seen repeatedly since that when Schmidt’s team have the chance to make history, to do something no Irish team has done before, to chase a dream that’s bigger than themselves, that this is when Ireland can click like a machine.
After Ireland beat New Zealand in Chicago in 2016, Schmidt famously said they had poked the bear. New Zealand will be bulling today. They have a confidence like they’ve never met a mirror they didn’t love.
To win today Ireland will first need to stay alive. Whatever about what Hansen said in March, Ireland are back at the level they once occupied.
They’re the hunter again. And it’s proven to be their best position from which to attack, to squeeze and suffocate, and to ultimately succeed.
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