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Ireland vs New Zealand: Andy Farrell’s men are perfectly primed for definitive All Blacks test

Quarter-final showdown looks completely different from four years ago, with Ireland now boasting All Blacks-type form

World Cup quarter-final: Ireland v New Zealand, Stade de France, Saturday, 9pm local time/8pm Irish – Live on Virgin Media One and ITV 1

This is it then.

Four years in the making, and with an even bigger prize on the line than in last year’s historic series decider between these two sides in Wellington or the first ever Grand Slam coronation in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day in Johnny Sexton’s last Six Nations game.

At circa 10pm local time, either Ireland will be through to their first Rugby World Cup semi-final next Friday or their 17-match winning run will have come to an end against the three-time winners.

When Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton declared two years ago that everything they did was geared toward the World Cup, they could hardly have envisaged arriving at this point in better nick.


Save for James Ryan and Robbie Henshaw missing out on the match-day 23 – and Mike Catt said both would be available should Ireland reach the semi-finals after they took part in the eve-of-match Captain’s Run at the Stade de France – Ireland are at full strength.

Indeed, but for Iain Henderson starting instead of Ryan it really is a statement of their rude health that this is the same starting XV as for that 32-23 win in the third Test decider all of 15 months ago.

Ronan Kelleher missed that tour, and with Jack Conan fit again and Conor Murray, who is in line to surpass the Irish record of 17 World Cup matches set by Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, the bench looks stronger.

With Dan Sheehan throwing the darts and the in-form Henderson calling the lineouts, Ireland’s attacking lifeblood should perform, and ditto their maul. Brilliant though Ardie Savea is, Ireland have the more in-form backrow in Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris.

Class act though Richie Mo’Unga is, with Ireland now a different beast from four years ago, Sexton looks the better bet for a cup tie, Bundee Aki is in the form of his life and as well as having the more nuanced multiphase attack, with Garry Ringrose at 13, Ireland probably have the slightly better defence as well.

Look back on the team beaten at the same juncture by the All Blacks four years ago and this is an altogether better all-round side, and in vastly better form too.

While their belief is palpable, equalling the all-time Test record of 18 wins in a row is a complete aside to the prize of earning a semi-final next Friday night against the winners of the preceding quarter-final in Marseilles between Warren Gatland’s Wales and Michael Cheika’s Argentina.

It’s a shame Ireland and New Zealand have met so early but quarter-final weekends have a habit of throwing up epics and this looks like the pick of them.

Given the attacking rugby both sides seek to play, and with Wayne Barnes more laissez-faire at the breakdown, it could be a quarter-final for the ages.

Ireland perhaps feel less queasy about Barnes being in charge after he presided over the home win in 2018 and series decider in Wellington – so ending a run of seven away defeats with him as referee.

Even so, since Barnes first took charge of an Irish international, Ireland have had a 65 per cent win-loss ratio in Test rugby, but with the experienced English barrister in charge, Ireland have won ten and lost 12, equating to 45 per cent.

Yet many in the game believe he is the best referee.

The Captain’s Run marked the last of the Parisian Indian summer, with the clouds enveloping the French capital from mid-afternoon, although the forecast overnight and morning rain is set to pass by around midday, leading to a dry, autumnal day and evening with temperatures in the low teens.

The other backdrop is Ireland’s phenomenal 16th man. There were plenty of early sightings of the advance troops on Friday, and well-placed sources say another 50,000 Green Army invasion is possible even if some may not actually have tickets.

Yet plenty will have bought for both quarter-finals to be on the safe side, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear all manner of songs and anthems at the two monumental night-time Paris quarter-finals.

Admittedly, this is a much-changed and stronger-looking All Blacks side than the one which lost a series at home to Ireland last year. It could also be that their pool fixtures fell nicely for them.

Their opening loss to France followed their pummelling by the Boks in Twickenham, but this allowed them to regroup in comfy wins over Namibia, Italy and Uruguay. Their haul of 38 tries was the best in the pool stages, followed by Ireland and France on 27, and South Africa on 22, and nothing makes an All Blacks side feel good about itself than running in hat loads of scores.

They’re very dangerous, no doubt. Their breakdown work has evidently been sharpened by Joe Schmidt, and ditto their launch plays. With Will Jordan and Beauden Barrett in their backfield, they are the most dangerous side bar none in the world from counterattacks or off turnovers.

One senses they might go after Ireland’s set-piece and in the air and will spring out of the blocks with vengeance in mind. If they score early, that might imbue the confidence derived from those recent routs.

But against that, this Irish team has shown a calmness and utter belief in themselves when rolling with the punches. What’s more, if Ireland strike early as they did in each of the three Tests last July, that could reopen some of the wounds inflicted on this All Blacks team over the last while, and especially against the Boks and France at this stadium five weeks ago on opening night.

In this respect, this quarter-final looks like a complete reversal from four years ago, with Ireland on the back of All Blacks-type form.

Ce sera énorme, as they say hereabouts.

Forecast: Ireland to win by 5 to 10 points.

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Joe McCarthy, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Jack Crowley, Jimmy O’Brien

NEW ZEALAND: Beauden Barrett; Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Leicester Fainga’anuku; Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ethan de Groot, Codie Taylor, Tyrel Lomax; Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett; Shannon Frizell, Sam Cane (capt), Ardie Savea.

Replacements: Dane Coles, Tamaiti Williams, Fletcher Newell, Samuel Whitelock, Dalton Papali’i, Finlay Christie, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown.