Wednesday 21 August 2019

Wellington battle will whet Irish appetites for World Cup

 

Richie Mo’unga (right) starts at out-half for the All Blacks against South Africa, with Beauden Barrett at full-back, as head coach Steve Hansen weighs up his attacking options ahead of the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Richie Mo’unga (right) starts at out-half for the All Blacks against South Africa, with Beauden Barrett at full-back, as head coach Steve Hansen weighs up his attacking options ahead of the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

New Zealand's clashes with South Africa are usually worth watching. This morning's battle in Wellington is essential viewing for Irish rugby fans.

Unless things go horribly wrong in the pool stage, one of those two heavy hitters will be lying in wait in Tokyo on the weekend of October 19 for a match that will define Joe Schmidt's side's campaign. Indeed, it is the one match more than any other that will shape the coach's legacy as he prepares to depart these shores.

Before injury curtailed his ambitions of playing in Japan, Jamie Heaslip punched the air when his side were pitched against Scotland, Japan, Russia and Samoa in the initial stage.

A moment's pause to look at the path to the final might have caused him to hesitate. The pay-off for that favourable draw is the quarter-final to end all quarter-finals.

Ireland's last-eight exits have come against France and Australia twice and Argentina and Wales once.

They've only faced New Zealand on one occasion, in 1995, while they've never met the Springboks in World Cup action.

They've faced them regularly enough in June and November Tests, but this will be a whole new ball game.

You can be sure that Schmidt and his team of assistants and analysts have prepared comprehensively for both already and this morning's clash will be pored over for clues as to how to negotiate a path to the final.

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Like the 2015 edition, this season's Rugby Championship is curtailed to just three rounds of games with the World Cup in mind.

Last weekend, the Springboks kicked off their campaign with a comprehensive home win over Australia and New Zealand rested all bar one of their Super Rugby champion Crusaders and still won in Argentina.

Today, we should get a better read on both teams in their only meeting before their opener in Yokohama on September 21 - the day the World Cup truly gets going.

Predictably enough, Steve Hansen is playing down the World Cup significance of the game given he and Rassie Erasmus are still tinkering with selections but few are buying that logic.

"He's wrong in my opinion. It has everything to do with the showpiece event because building belief is immense ahead of the Pool B encounter in Yokohama on September 21," former Springbok assistant and 1995 World Cup winner Brendan Venter wrote this week.

"Even if the Boks don't beat the All Blacks on Saturday, the non-negotiable is that it is another fighting, competitive performance from Erasmus's men. The critical aspect is that, with 10 minutes to go, the visitors must be within a score of winning the Test."

That kind of talk is a world removed from the atmosphere that surrounded Springbok rugby less than two years ago when they were humiliated in Auckland by today's opponents.

Triggered

That 57-0 defeat was the death knell for Allister Coetzee's time in charge and, having already triggered Erasmus's return home from Munster, the South African union duly installed him as head coach.

Within a couple of months the wily former army officer was engineering a series win over England and last year he guided his team to victory over the All Blacks in Wellington.

After spending much of this World Cup cycle on the decline, they are shaping up as real contenders in Japan.

The identity of Ireland's quarter-final opponents will be evident early on. Their own pool fate will be decided in the first six days of their campaign when they take on Scotland and the tournament hosts, while the Pool B hierarchy will be established across 80 minutes in the Yokohama City Stadium.

If results go according to world rankings, then Ireland will have two weeks to prepare for a clash with the Boks. The fact that Erasmus and his highly-regarded assistant coach Jacques Nienaber spent 15 months of this World Cup cycle fully embedded in Irish rugby will cause plenty of concern.

At one stage, the former Springbok was being openly talked about as a potential successor to Schmidt but instead he could be the man to wreck the four years of work that have gone into getting past the last-eight stage.

A somewhat enigmatic figure who could charm and mislead with equanimity during his time here, the nature of the Springbok supremo's departure from Limerick after just one season in charge left something of a sour taste.

Conspiracy theorists may stretch to suggesting that his stint in Ireland was part of a combined long game to oust Coetzee while also getting a good, long look at the Irish systems and structures but that might be a stretch.

What is undeniable is that he and his team would represent a real obstacle to Irish success in Japan if their paths crossed.

Privately, the Boks backroom staff openly admit that they are putting huge work into analysing Ireland in the expectation that their paths will cross in October and the performances of Erasmus's team has changed the perception of a previously struggling outfit.

Like Schmidt, Hansen and Erasmus are working through their options and today sees Beauden Barrett revert to full-back to accommodate the in-form Richie Mo'unga at out-half.

The talk in New Zealand is that the All Blacks are looking to use a new attack shape with the World Cup in mind.

South Africa have named close to their strongest team, with two-try debutant scrum-half Herschel Jantjes on the bench alongside veteran Montpellier back Frans Steyn, who could cover No 10 at the tournament.

Four years ago, the two teams who have won the last three editions of the World Cup between them met in an enthralling semi-final, with Australia and Argentina completing a southern hemisphere shut-out at England's World Cup.

One of the theories behind their enhanced performance was the competitive build-up they enjoyed in the Rugby Championship, with their European rivals confined to one-off warm-up games of questionable merit.

It's not a theory that former Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll agrees with.

"It doesn't change your mentality. The warm-up games will still be full bore, you know you're not going to be able to ease your way into Test match rugby, irrespective of whether it's referred to as a friendly or otherwise," he said this week.

"I think it's much of a muchness to be honest. The big thing is fresh legs versus tired legs, being ready versus being match-hardened. That's the question we'll always ask until we get a global season.

"It's hurt Ireland in the past, not being prepped for a World Cup, getting preparation wrong; that's not going to be the case.

"If anything, they can pull back and modify training in advance of games, having had the amount of rugby they've played in the southern hemisphere. You can spin it whatever way you want to."

This morning's game, he agrees, is essential viewing.

If Ireland are to break their glass ceiling and go on to compete at the semi-final stage for the first time, they'll have to produce their greatest World Cup victory with the stakes at their highest.

The action in Wellington will give them a taste of what awaits them in Japan.

New Zealand v South Africa,

Live, Sky Sports, 8.35am

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