And then there were eight! It’s quarter-final time in Japan with eight of the world’s best teams primed for battle this weekend. Ireland take on New Zealand in what is sure to be a titanic battle in Tokyo.
It’s a date with destiny, a chance for players and coaches alike to define their reputations for years to come. Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final clash with Tokyo (LIVE on eir sport 1 this Saturday from 10.30am) is probably the biggest game in our rugby history.
There was a time when we would have been glad to have made it this far, but not any more. Despite a dip in consistency since the beginning of the Six Nations, this has always been our primary goal. This time we’re in it to win it.
Joe Schmidt’s men have a good record against the All Blacks and will be quietly confident heading into the game, but can they make the semi-finals for the first time in their history? New Zealand coach Steve Hansen is obviously a little nervous and has started the mind games already. Ireland have won two of their last three meetings and should fear nothing heading into the game. Hansen knows this.
Ireland have been inconsistent this year, rarely turning in two decent performances on the trot. However, if they can truly express themselves and play without fear on Saturday, then they have an excellent chance of causing an upset. However, it must be said that New Zealand are not the team that we beat in Dublin last November. They have moved on from there and are now a far more dangerous prospect.
Schmidt has gone for a tried and trusted starting fifteen as he always does in key games. Rob Kearney, Garry Ringrose and Peter O’Mahony are back with Bundee Aki suspended and Jordan Larmour and Tadgh Beirne dropping to the bench after starting against Samoa. Otherwise it’s the same team that took the field for the final pool game last Saturday.
All of the starting fifteen have experienced victory over the All Blacks and won’t be overawed by the occasion, but we need big performances particularly from our front five and half-back combo. If our set-piece stays on track, and that’s a big if, then we should be in the game.
Perhaps in reply to counterpart Hansen’s attempt at some mind game play earlier in the week, Schmidt declared that Ireland have lost the element of surprise that they might once have had against the All Blacks. The implication is that he has nothing new to bring to the table for this game. Hansen would do well to take that with a grain of salt.
New Zealand hate to lose. We saw it in response to their recent Bledisloe Cup defeat to Australia just a few weeks and we experienced it for ourselves following our maiden victory in Chicago in November 2016. They exacted a terrible revenge when the two sides met at the Aviva a fortnight later in a 21-9 victory that will be remembered as a display that pushed the bounds of the game to their very limits.
Three Irish players left the pitch with concussion before the 80 minutes were up, while Robbie Henshaw was unconscious before he hit the ground following a shoulder-to-head challenge from Sam Cane. With the chance of an unprecedented hat-trick of World Cup titles on the line, we can expect something similar from New Zealand on Saturday. They will stop at nothing to win – and Ireland must be prepared for that.
So must referee Nigel Owens who, despite being recognised as one of the best whistle men in the world, has been criticised in the past for his laissez-faire handling of the breakdown which could play into New Zealand’s hands. Still, I would rather have Owens in charge than Jaco Peyper or Jerome Garces.
The first fifteen minutes of the game will tell us plenty about what’s on and what’s not for both sides. All we can hope for is a keenly contested quality rugby match played within the rules of the game. It would be a terrible shame if it were to be remembered for anything else.
All the focus has been on the Ireland v New Zealand game, but there are three other mouth-watering quarter-finals to consider this weekend as well. England take on Australia on Saturday (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 7.30am) in what promises to be a fascinating game.
It’s a replay of the 2003 final but probably won’t need a last-gasp drop goal to win it for the northern hemisphere outfit this time as Eddie Jones’s side, with Billy Vunipola back from injury, should have too much for a Wallabies side who have struggled for form over the past couple of years.
That said, not too much was expected of them in 2015 and they went all the way to the final after beating England in the pool stages to knock the hosts out of the tournament. The winner of the Ireland v New Zealand game will be hoping for a similar result this time around.
Pool D winners Wales take on France on Sunday (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 7.30am) in another game that could upset the form book. Wales have looked good in the tournament so far and are clear favourites for this game.
France have struggled but they have shown glimpses of Gallic flair from time to time and should not be taken lightly. Their backs are dangerous and if they can spread the ball out wide, then we could be in for an exciting game. However, it’s hard to see beyond Wales for this one.
The last quarter-final is possibly the most intriguing of all as hosts Japan take on South Africa on Sunday (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 10.30am). They beat the Springboks four years ago in one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history and have won all four of their pool games in this year’s tournament, playing some scintillating rugby along the way. Deserved victories over Ireland and Scotland see them take their place at the game’s top table as they reach the knock-out stages for the first time in their history.
The feeling is that they could go even further, to the semi-final at least, and South Africa will have to be at their best to contain a team that now has the whole world behind them. However, the Springboks have improved steadily since Rassie Erasmus took over and will fancy their chances of making the last four themselves. Either way, it won’t be dull!
Following matchday three the PRO14 is currently on a two-week hiatus and won’t return until the end of the month. There has been some excellent rugby played over the opening three rounds with more than a few surprise results along the way.
Last weekend was no exception as Munster went down to a heavy defeat to Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, Leinster thrashed Edinburgh, Ulster did the same to Southern Kings and Connacht secured a bonus point win away to Dragons.
Glasgow notched their first win of the campaign with a narrow 17-13 victory over Cardiff Blues at Scotstoun, while Scarlets hammered Zebre and Ospreys edged out Benetton.
You can see ALL seven PRO14 matchday four games LIVE on eir sport on Friday and Saturday of the Bank Holiday weekend.
By Kieran O’Daly
****Remember, eir sport is the only place you can watch EVERY RWC 2019 game LIVE.