The Japan v South Africa game on Sunday is clearly the main attraction and will be an emotion-fuelled, beguilingly unpredictable occasion but as appetisers go for the Tokyo half of the draw, New Zealand versus Ireland the day before ain’t bad. Pre-tournament many may even have had that down as a potential final but the two sides meet in the last-eight stage in what promises to be a fascinating duel for rugby purists.
The world rugby rankings may have been in a volatile flux over the past few dizzying weeks but the wider trend over the past few years has been an enthralling tussle between the Irish as torch bearers for the northern hemisphere against the planet’s most fabled and iconic rugby nation New Zealand, who are aiming for a fourth global crown and third in a row.
The Irish may have beaten the game’s superpower twice in the past two years but the fact remains that the men in green, for all their Six Nations titles, Triple Crowns and Grand Slams of the the past ‘golden generation’ two decades, have never won a knock-out game at a World Cup, something New Zealand coach Steve Hansen was happy to say may bring a little, or as the Kiwis like to say “wee bit” of pressure to Joe Schmidt’s side.
The All Blacks’ team announcement press conference in the Minato City district of Tokyo stuck to the well-established blueprint - punctual, no fuss, quiet confidence, no grenades thrown.
Centres Jack Goodhue and Anton Leinert-Brown have been entrusted with firing what has been a hardly stellar showing from the champions’ midfield so far, with Sonny Bill Williams on the bench.
Experienced lock Brodie Retallick is back despite only 30 minutes of game time in Japan. Cody Taylor is preferred to Dane Coles at hooker as the All Blacks look to stretch their unbeaten World Cup run to 18 games against familiar foes.
Asked about that formidable New Zealand record compared to the monkey on the Irish back of never delivering at this stage of the tournament, Hansen said: “One team is probably feeling that it’s their turn to win one but that doesn't guarantee it does it?
“With that comes pressure. Both teams are in the same situation aren't they? When the game comes and there's the final whistle one team will go right and the other will go left. We all understand that.
“I caught up with [Ireland assistant coach] Andy Farrell yesterday and had a yarn with him and in that conversation that was brought up. One of us will be going home. But that's just the cold hard facts about the World Cup.
“We have experienced it ourselves in 2007 [when the favourites were shocked by France at this stage in Cardiff] and there’s no guarantees we won't experience it again. Ireland are in a situation where they haven't gone past a quarter-final so they will be doing their darnedest not to go home. You just hope it’s a good a game that is not affected by cards and at the end of it no-one has got any excuses. You just have to take your fate on the chin.”
On the theme of cards, Hansen was asked his views on Welshman Nigel Owens’ appointment as referee for the heavyweight crunch clash at Tokyo Stadium.
“Watch out for his sense of humour,” said the coach with a grin,
“He's pretty good with the one-liners. I think your'e focusing on the wrong things if you're worrying about the referee. He has his idiosyncrasies. We know about them, Ireland know them but what I like about Nigel is that he has shown over the years that he is good under pressure it will be a big pressure game and we're happy we have got him for this occasion. We will adapt and adjust as we go.”
Hansen steps down after this World Cup so knows this could be his last game as New Zealand coach after seven years in world rugby’s hottest seat.
“It'll affect me when it’s finished,” he said. “You haven't got any room to get gaa gaa emotional. You're here to do a job. The team is bigger than the individual and the it always has been. The jersey and legacy of the jersey demands you to be there giving 100 per cent of what you have.
“So you don’t have time to think about yourself. When the tournament is over and whenever that is that's when you step back and have a reflection and have a think about what's next and what life will be like. But at the moment it's not even in your mind.”
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