NEW ZEALAND coach Steve Hansen has sent out a warning to Ireland ahead of the first game of his side’s World Cup defence against South Africa tomorrow.
The result of that game could put the All Blacks on a collision course with Joe Schmidt’s side in the quarter-final, with the winner of Pool A taking on the second-placed team from Pool B and vice versa.
Barring a seismic shock, the world champions and the Springboks will get out their pool, with Ireland, Scotland and Japan battling to emerge from Pool A.
So, it could be argued that the clash of the weekend between the Southern Hemisphere giants is relatively unimportant given they would both back themselves to beat one of those teams in the last eight.
Hansen, who attended his third press conference of the week at the Yokohama International Stadium today, has named a strong side for the opener against a dangerous South Africa team.
And he is backing his team to beat all-comers in the quarter-final, whether it’s Ireland, Scotland or Japan.
“This is all we can control,” he said.
“I guess you’re talking about who we play in the quarter-final. We don’t know what will happen in the other pool. We could win this pool and Scotland could win theirs, or Ireland could.
“I think you can get too smart if you start thinking about things like that.
“You’ve just got to live where you are at the time and make sure you do it well.
"If we get to the quarter-final then it’s about making sure we turn up that day right and come back to work on Monday regardless of who we’re playing.
“The one thing I do know is that if we play to the best of our ability then it doesn’t matter who we play; they’re going to have to play really well to beat us and if they do so then well done to them and we have to accept that.
“But if they don’t then they may have to accept the consequences.”
Having assisted Graham Henry to New Zealand’s second World Cup in 2011 and guided the team himself in their 2015 success, Hansen is confident his team have what it takes to win the tournament.
But he believes that the field has never been stronger.
“Well, it’s the current one, so it’s going to be competitive,” he said of this tournament.
“They’re always competitive. It always makes me chuckle when I hear people say ‘oh, this team can’t win or this team cannot win.’ Right now you’ve got a number of sides who are capable of winning it because they’ve got the talent in their group.
“But with that comes higher expectations and with higher expectations comes more pressure and if you deal with it that pressure it will overwhelm you.
“That’s the big thing, who’s going to cope with that the best, and as I’ve said before who’s going to deal with the good luck and the bad luck they get, and how well they deal with it.
“At the end of the day like all of the tournaments I think anyone could have won it, but there’s probably more in this tournament than normal.
“Probably in the last one it was two or three; this one there’s probably five or six, which is great for rugby.
"As confident as you can be, yeah,” he said.
"We've got the talent in the group to get the job done, it's just whether we earn the right to get all the way there.
"You know knockout rugby, you have a bad day and away home you go. The key thing is we know we have the same amount of good luck and the same amount of bad luck as everyone else.
"It's what we do with it when it happens and how we react to it when it's needed.
"So, yeah, we've certainly got the talent."
“I said yesterday, when someone asked ‘what happens if you lose the first game?’. Well, what we have to do is win every game after that, and if we win the next game, this game tomorrow, we still have to do the same thing, we still have to win all the games that come.”
“It’s just making sure that we stay grounded, we stay where we need to be and we’re hungry enough to do the job and make the sacrifices we need to make.”
Former Munster coach Rassie Erasmus has overseen major improvements in the 18 months he’s been in charge of the Springboks.
In 2017, they lost 57-0 to the world champions, but a year later they beat them in Wellington and then this year they were unlucky to only draw at the same venue.
Captain Siya Kolisi believes those results have put them in a positive frame of mind going into tomorrow morning’s opening game.
"100 per cent,” he said.
“We work really hard and the only way we could see whether we are improving or not is to test yourself against the best in the world.
“It gave us a lot of belief and hope to win that game two years ago, and since then, we haven’t looked back.
"We just believe we can get better and better. That’s what we strive for. They are tough opposition to test yourself against, but you can see where you are when you play against them.
"This is the game you want to play in."
With the rain set to fall hard in the Japanese city tomorrow, this one could be a brutal affair.
It might not matter in the long term given both teams will expect to emerge from the pool, but they’ll be desperate to get one over their biggest rivals which should set things up nicely.
Erasmus and his ‘Boks are out to make a statement and they might just get it over the line.
Verdict: South Africa