TOKYO, Japan, Oct 18 – Defending world champions New Zealand are ready to conquer their quarter-final nerves and seize the slightest opportunity when they take on Ireland on Saturday, a side that has beaten them twice in their last three meetings.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read said the fact his side hadn’t played since an academic run-out against Namibia on October 6, with their final pool match against Italy cancelled because of Typhoon Hagibis, would count for little.
“We’ve trained as well as we can and we’re in a great position to go out there and perform on the field,” said the talismanic number eight, who will retire from international rugby after the World Cup.
“We know how close the games have been over the last few years and it’s an exciting challenge.”
Ireland, under Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt, have been a mixed bag in Japan and were beaten by the hosts before eventually recovering to finish as Pool A runners-up.
But New Zealand are aware of the danger they pose after their recent defeats, including in Dublin last year when Jacob Stockdale’s try from a moment of improvisation proved the difference between the two teams.
“You know the Irish are a really good side,” Read said. “Perhaps they haven’t played to their potential through this World Cup but in a World Cup game, it’s whoever turns up on the day and it could only be a couple of opportunities that present themselves for either side.
“A finals game will certainly bring you a little bit more nerves, a little bit more pressure.”
However, Read said the two defeats — Ireland’s 40-29 triumph in Chicago in 2016 and their 16-9 victory in Dublin, either side of the All Blacks’ 21-9 win in the Irish capital — would count for nothing come Saturday.
“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,” he said.
“It’s two teams ranked very highly, good sides, and it’s about turning up on the day. We take lessons from those games and we need to be a lot better than what we were.”
– ‘Ready to rumble’ –
Cross-code star Sonny Bill Williams will start on the bench and fellow centre Ryan Crotty misses out altogether as coach Steve Hansen named in-form Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue in midfield. Two-time World Rugby player of the year Beauden Barrett starts at full-back.
“Ireland are in a situation where they haven’t gone past the quarter-final. They know what it’s like to go home so they’ll try their darndest not to and we’ll be the same,” said Hansen.
Schmidt admitted that Hansen and his backroom staff were “good guys to have a drink with afterwards”, but stressed there would be little conviviality in the lead-up to what he said would be a challenging game for the Irish.
“We’re certainly not going to sneak up on them anymore, we’re not going to surprise them. They are well aware of how we play and what they are going to do to combat that,” said the Kiwi who, like Hansen, will step down after the World Cup.
“I’ve no doubt they’ve got a few things cooked up that we haven’t seen before that we’re going to find really challenging.”
Schmidt drafted in Robbie Henshaw to replace Bundee Aki, banned for three matches for a high tackle in their final pool game against Samoa, at inside centre.
Veteran Rory Best will skipper the team from hooker, with the experienced duo of Conor Murray and World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton named at half-back.
“We’re in a reasonably good spot,” said Best. “Ultimately, it’s all about Saturday — it’s all about which team can turn up and implement their game plan best and deal with the pressure of knockout rugby.”
Hansen echoed Best’s words, saying he had primed his All Blacks team to be “excited, full of energy and ready to rumble” as they seek a third consecutive title.