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Schmidt's RWC moment of truth

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This is it, the moment of truth that will define Joe Schmidt's Ireland legacy

This is it, the moment of truth that will define Joe Schmidt’s legacy as Ireland coach. He may have won three Six Nations titles, delivered a Grand Slam and registered multiple other feted milestones in his six-year, 75-match reign, but it all boils down to a single 80 minutes in Tokyo on Saturday.

Ireland are desperate to shatter the glass ceiling that is never progressing beyond a World Cup quarter-final. Desperate, too, is Schmidt following his own 2015 mishap when his side were ruthlessly picked off by Argentina. 

It turned out that Ireland had honed their defence that week in Wales on a far too narrow schools pitch in the Gwent area, leaving them vulnerable to the burglary that repeatedly took place in the wide channels at the Millennium Stadium. 

They seemingly haven’t similarly been hemmed in at their Chiba training base this past week and while they are arriving into this latest quarter-final on the back foot of not winning their pool as was expected, there are no really valid excuses applicable if they are to yet again fall short at this stage of the World Cup.

Admittedly, some players in the chosen XV haven’t been on the boil. The performances of Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Keith Earls have fluctuated, Peter O’Mahony has looked exhausted, Robbie Henshaw was frustratingly rusty on his return last weekend, while experience more so than form edged Rob Kearney into this weekend’s frame ahead of Jordan Larmour. 

(Continue reading below…)

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However, there is no denying Schmidt – through a mixture of planning and circumstance –  has arrived into this quarter-final with an incredibly seasoned first-choice team which, by extension, highlights how all the chatter about Ireland supposedly having never-seen-before strength in depth is a misnomer. 

Schmidt has his favourites for a reason and that favouritism is reflected in how often most of Saturday’s positional combinations have played together. The focus has been on how half-backs Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray are starting in tandem for a record 56th time, but some numbers elsewhere are also very strong.  

It’s the 17th time that the front row of Cian Healy, Best and Tadhg Furlong are starting together, the 14th time for the back three of Kearney, Earls and Jacob Stockdale and the 11th time for lock pair Iain Henderson and James Ryan. 

Switching to back row, it’s the eighth time there is a starting trio of O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander and with Schmidt’s favourite No12 Bundee Aki now suspended (he started 23 of Ireland’s last 28 matches), there is a reprise of the Robbie Henshaw/Garry Ringrose axis for a seventh time. 

The message clearly is Schmidt has certain players he trusts for the big occasion and there has been no bigger occasion in his reign than this World Cup quarter-final versus the defending champions.

THE NAUGHTY STEP

Curious to hear Irish fan concerns this week regarding Nigel Owens’ appointment as quarter-final referee. The last two occasions he was on the whistle in this particular head-to-head, Ireland were left feeling hard done by.

A debatable ruck penalty inside the New Zealand half against Jack McGrath was what gave the Kiwis the possession to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat in Dublin back in November 2013.

Seventeen months earlier, Owens caused consternation in Christchurch when he penalised Mike Ross at a scrum that many felt the decision should have gone the other way. Instead, it gave New Zealand the ball to build the pressure that led to Dan Carter’s decisive drop goal.

Being ultra disciplined is what has allowed Ireland to be very competitive in Ireland-New Zealand fixtures in the Joe Schmidt era.

In his four meetings with the All Blacks, where there have been two wins and two defeats, the overall penalty count has been a heavy 45 to 18 and three yellow cards to none against the New Zealanders, a trend the Irish will hope now continues in this final Schmidt versus Steve Hansen showdown.

New Zealand, though, have been on better behaviour so far in Japan, conceding just 18 penalties in three games and just four in pool-defining clash with South Africa last month. Ireland, by comparison, have conceded 28 penalties in four matches.

That is the same as Japan, Tonga and Canada (all on 28), and better than USA (29), Australia (31), France (31), Argentina (34), Wales (35), Fiji (37), Georgia (41), Uruguay (44) and Samoa (50).

THE BALL-TO-BOOT ASPERSION 

Aspersions that Ireland are mainly a team that puts boot to ball is something that has regularly needled Joe Schmidt over the years. This World Cup, though, hasn’t provided evidence that his side doesn’t over-rely on this tactic. 

Of the 20 teams, only Russia (112), South Africa (104) and Uruguay (104) kicked the ball more from the hand than Ireland’s tally of 103. Of course, the pool totals are skewed by six teams only playing three matches, but there are still some stark differences when the Irish are compared to some fellow quarter-finalists.

For instance, Japan, Wales and Australia – who each played four games – kicked a respective 89, 83 and 51 times in their matches. England and France – who played just three each – checked in with 87 and 74 respectively while the All Blacks kicked just 64 times in their three outings.

Granted, the New Zealand figure is a cancelled match short of being a fairer comparison but Schmidt’s claim that there ‘there is a misconception that the All Blacks don’t kick as much as anyone else – they kick as much as anyone else’ hasn’t yet been backed up at this tournament.  

TACKLE RATE OMEN?

If there is an omen that Ireland are in the groove and primed to dethrone New Zealand it’s the current tackle success rate. When they picked off the All Blacks in Dublin 11 months ago they did so with an 89 per cent tackle completion rate, just 24 missed in a tackle count of 188. 

So far at the finals in Japan, they have missed 50 of their 464 pool stage tackles, an 89 per cent rate. That is a considerable increase on their record loss to England in the pre-tournament warm-ups where they missed 38 of 116 tackles at Twickenham for a 75 per cent completion rate.

THE 2016 HANGOVER

Ireland are hoping selection consistency can tilt their result their way, a dozen of their starters in the win over New Zealand in November 2018 lined-up to start again in Tokyo. 

Roll the clock back further and they are fielding seven of the starters who began the breakthrough win over the All Blacks in Chicago in November 2016, a heathy number that further illustrates how they should have no fears heading into this latest match-up. 

Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong and CJ Stander were all starters that seminal Saturday in the USA. So too was current squad member Jordi Murphy, while Soldier Field subs Cian Healy, Josh van der Flier and Garry Ringrose (unused that day) are now in the starting line-up. Joey Carbery takes up a repeat bench role.

Of the seven 2016 starters not with Ireland in Japan, three have retired (Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne and Jamie Heaslip), two are considered ineligible as they now play their club rugby outside Ireland (Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan) and two more lost out on RWC 2019 squad selection on form (Jack McGrath and Devin Toner).  

WATCH: Ireland’s Johnny Sexton speaks at a press conference ahead of the quarter-final against New Zealand

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This is it, the moment of truth that will define Joe Schmidt's Ireland legacy