It’s about now New Zealand starts to get anxious. Forced to contemplate the prospect that the All Blacks could crash out of the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, tension and nerves bubble to the surface.
Four years ago the same sense gripped the country. France in a quarter-final. Memories of 2007 flooded back. Not Cardiff again, many screamed.
If the All Blacks of recent World Cups have taught us anything about these situations, it’s that this is the time to take a breath and, perhaps, take lessons from the players themselves.
Saturday night at Tokyo Stadium they, too, will be nervous. But they will also embrace the occasion, embrace the pressure, and attempt to turn that heat on Ireland.
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“Will there be some nerves? Heck yeah,” assistant coach Ian Foster said as the All Blacks conclude preparations for their headline assignment. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s about acknowledging that you are nervous and you turn that into a positive excitement. That’s what big occasions are about.”
Nerves with Ireland are fully justified. Under Joe Schmidt they have twice achieved history against the All Blacks. They now seek to add a third notch after their first win in 111 years, and their first win on home soil.
Twelve members of this Irish team featured in that last victory in Dublin. That gives them belief their predecessors longed for.
Starting their 56th test together, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will become Ireland’s most capped halves pairing. Their experience, poise and influence brings further confidence.
Ireland do not, however, have any experience of winning World Cup quarter-finals. Six attempts, six failures. How much will that weigh them down if the match is tight in the final quarter?
Ireland’s day of reckoning has arrived. For the All Blacks, it’s another knockout match.
Having been there, done that, winning 17 straight World Cup matches, they should be better equipped to handle this pinnacle arena.
“We’ve been here before and we’ve used that experience,” Foster said. “It doesn’t make it any easier it just gives you the knowledge of what’s at stake. They’ve been in a lot of quarter-finals too.”
Confidence in the All Blacks stems largely from their evolution over the past 11 months. This team features nine positional changes from the one that lost in Dublin but changes to their attacking game, their shape and structure, are also clear.
“We always remember our losses pretty clearly but you try and learn from them and move forward. It’s interesting when you look at the number of things we’ve changed in the past 12 months and a lot of those are because of some performances last year we weren’t totally proud of.
“You learn your lessons and then you evolve things.
“Games like this are not so often about a special trick or surprise it’s about how you deal with the pressure and how you keep executing your own game. It’s one thing to know each other’s game, it’s another to execute it properly and stop the other person doing it. That’s what playoffs are about, having that composure to trust yourself.”
Sure there’s risk in the All Blacks’ youthful backline which features four Crusaders but they have all been encouraged to be fearless, to bring the same spark that got them to this stage.
Play with freedom and pace, and the All Blacks boast far superior threats.
“Our challenge going into a big game is to not dampen that confidence. We’ve got to be smart, there’s potential rain, we’re playing a team that likes to suffocate you. We’ve got to respect all those elements but we’ve also got to do what we want to do well.”
Maintaining discipline and starting well will be important. Ireland’s two victories over the All Blacks came after they built a lead and grew their belief.
If the All Blacks settle early and impose their game, Ireland are vulnerable when forced to chase. They do not like breaking from their conservative shell and, in many respects, do not have a plan B.
“Scoreboard pressure is pretty powerful and something we know they like to accumulate and they’re quite happy to do that and put you under pressure that way.
“We’ve got to prepare for every situation we can. Some things happen early that you can’t control or you don’t do them well. We’ve got to stay true to what we are because ultimately while you want to start well, we know it’s going to be an 80 minute game. We’ve got a great opponent who we know are tenacious and will play all the way to the end.”
It’s fine to be nervous and tense about this get-it-right-or-go-home scenario. Ireland have earned that respect.
But just as the All Blacks have entrusted their men to play unburdened so, too, should we trust them to pull it off.
DMWJ | Jim previews Ireland vs New Zealand:
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