Canon Rugby in Focus: Ireland awaits an All Blacks team that will be well-rested. Perhaps too well-rested.
Rested and ready, or a game short and not match fit.
Those are the two scenarios that will have All Blacks fans fretting this week ahead of the World Cup quarterfinal against Ireland in Tokyo.
The argument can swing either way.
Ireland played their final pool game, beating Samoa 47-5 in Fukuoka on Saturday, a week before the quarterfinal.
The All Blacks were due to play Italy that day in Tokyo but the game was cancelled because of the deadly typhoon that swept through the city. So their last match was six days earlier against Namibia.
That’s a 13-day break between games. Not ideal, but not a disaster, provided the All Blacks have got their training right.
Coach Steve Hansen will have ramped up the opposed trainings, working hard to put pressure on the players to try to simulate what happens in a match.
It’s true that, at times, the All Blacks find training tougher than some of the tests they play at World Cups, but there’s still a sneaky feeling that you can’t beat playing games.
Ireland will be hoping that’s the case.
Wing Andrew Conway, who started on the bench against Samoa, summed up perfectly the difference in preparation.
“You can look at it in a negative or a positive way. New Zealand will be fresh, we’ll be battle-hardened,” he said.
“I’d be surprised if they were scared of us but they definitely know that we can come and play, and that we can beat them.
“They’re playing ridiculously well at the moment. They just look sharp. They’ve timed their run nicely so we’ll have to be at 110 percent to get stuck into them.”
It’s that last comment from Conway that sticks out. It’s more compliment than fact.
The All Blacks were timing their run nicely, with the game against Italy set to put the finishing touches to their preparations, not the least by giving lock Brodie Retallick more valuable game time.
And the All Blacks might have looked sharp, as Conway suggests, but only in patches. They’re yet to hit their straps and were not, despite what Conway says, “playing ridiculously well”.
At least, not yet.
Coming into a big test without recent game time is not new for the All Blacks. It happens every year when they head north and they usually cope pretty well.
Last year, after a three week break, they beat Australia 37-20 in Yokohama. In 2017 they beat France 38-18 in Paris, although a few of the players had featured against the Barbarians a week earlier.
Go back another year, to November 5 in 2016, and you find the game that starts to set the scene for this week’s quarter final in Japan.
The All Blacks played Ireland in Chicago that Guy Fawkes day, the first of four tests away, and two weeks after they had beaten Australia at Eden Park.
Ireland had never beaten the All Blacks and few expected them to do so at Soldier Field.
But the All Blacks, Hansen later admitted, were blinded by the bright lights of the big city that week and let their minds wander from the reason they were there.
Hansen was also forced to start flanker Jerome Kaino at lock.
But none of this should detract from Ireland’s performance that day.
They thrashed the All Blacks, who were flattered by the 40-29 scoreline.
The All Blacks hit back two weeks later with a 21-9 win in Dublin but lost, 9-16, to Ireland again last year.
There are 14 players from the Chicago playing 23 who are in Japan with the All Blacks, and 20 from the 23 who lost to Ireland last year.
That should ensure the pencil is sharpened this week.
But Ireland are a team that now demands respect. They came to Japan as the top-ranked team in the world and are the only team who have beaten the All Blacks in two of their last three tests.
Yes, they lost to Japan in their second match at the World Cup. But Japan have gone on to show that the result was far from a fluke and will play their quarterfinal against South Africa, who they beat at the last World Cup.
The other quarter finals see England play Australia and Wales take on France – both games at Oita on Saturday and Sunday respectively.
Ireland, under Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt, have shown they can arm wrestle their way to victory but also have attacking flair and an expansive game.
They are a considerable threat, especially if they are able to dictate the pace of the game.
That is the key to victory. It’s more important than possession and territory because it’s not how much ball you have, or where you have it, it’s what you do with it that counts.
And the All Blacks will look to use it at pace. They will attack from deep in their own half and at every opportunity, looking to run Ireland off their feet.
It will be high-risk but with great reward and, when they get it right, there is no team that can match the All Blacks.
But will they get it right? Are they match ready? Have they been able to fine-tune their game plan, under pressure, at training?
Does the week off help or hinder?
A lot will be said about it this week, but the truth is no one knows.
We will, though, at Tokyo Stadium on Saturday night.
The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.