Monday 18 November 2019

Tried and trusted v young guns: It all comes down to this for Schmidt and Hansen

Return of Retallick and youngest Barrett on bench sums up the contrasting styles on sideline

Joe Schmidt gets ready before Ireland training in Arcs Urayasu Park in Aichi. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt gets ready before Ireland training in Arcs Urayasu Park in Aichi. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

If one selection sums up where New Zealand see Ireland now, it is the call to put Jordie Barrett on the bench for tomorrow's World Cup quarter-final.

Asked about that call, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said that the youngest Barrett brother's capacity to kick goals from long range might just come in handy in the Tokyo Stadium.

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It was the clearest indication yet that New Zealand are reading little into Ireland's 2019 dip in form and are preparing for a tight match against a team who have caused them more problems than most recently.

Hansen was not messing around with his team selection, picking Brodie Retallick back into the mix despite his lack of recent game-time, while jettisoning Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty altogether.

Both coaches showed their hands yesterday, with Joe Schmidt opting for a team he has steadily built across a four-year cycle of consistent selection and established combinations.

His opposite number has taken a different approach, picking young men in form ahead of senior leadership figures.

If Schmidt was in charge of the All Blacks, Crotty and Smith would probably be in the team. Dane Coles would likely be starting too.

The clash in the coaching booths is a contrast in styles as both men go into a match they know will be their last in their current roles if they lose.

The stakes could hardly be bigger for both men and, now that they've shown their hand, they are on a watching brief ahead of tomorrow's kick-off. Schmidt believes his combinations will be a decisive factor.

"The unfortunate thing about any 23 that comes up against the All Blacks is that they can play very well and still not get the result. That's the quality that the All Blacks have, the athletes that they possess," he said.

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New Zealand's Jordie Barrett scores a try. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

"But one of the things is that they (the Irish players) have connected up very well, that they have had some pretty successful experiences together. There's a number of players within that side that have contributed to a fair bit of history for us.

"The first win over the All Blacks, the first time we won at home to the All Blacks, but a few other milestones along the way. A lot of those players that are selected were in Australia last summer, were in South Africa the summer before when we won in Cape Town. So the accumulation of those experiences together hopefully builds a bit of confidence.

"You can't go out against an All Blacks side and accept that you're second fiddle. You've got to go out and put your best foot forward."

In Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, Ireland have the second most experienced half-back pairing of all time.

Since the end of the 2017 Lions tour, Schmidt has paired James Ryan and Iain Henderson together 11 times, with the front-row of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong lining out 17 times.

The back-three have played together 12 times and, while Bundee Aki has been the fulcrum of Ireland's midfield, the combination of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose is an established one at Leinster.

In contrast, New Zealand have pivoted late in the World Cup cycle.

Hansen dropped his long-term first-choice tighthead Owen Franks, while Damian McKenzie's absence has forced him to go with Richie Mo'unga at out-half, with Beauden Barrett operating at full-back.

On the wing, Sevu Reece and George Bridge have 12 caps between them, but they are in form and know each other from playing at the Crusaders.

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New Zealand players share a joke during training ahead of Saturday’s showdown against Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

Hansen has picked Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue at centre, with the experience of Sonny Bill Williams on the bench and Crotty in the stands. Beside him will be Smith, as Barrett gets the nod.

"Jordie's extra string is that he's a big goal-kicker and can kick goals from inside his own half or kick drop-goals from halfway at the drop of a hat. Those are things you have to take into account when you are picking a team," Hansen said.

Probably the most established pairing in the team is the combination of Retallick and Sam Whitelock.

The second-rows are recognised as the best partnership in the game and although Retallick has only managed 30 minutes since dislocating his shoulder in July, Hansen has confidence he can make an impact, even if it's not quite for 80 minutes.

"They're tenacious," Hansen said of Ireland. "They play a structured game that they know they're good at.

"They don't wander too far off the script and they're not a team that give you a lot of opportunities through mistakes and they're pretty good at keeping the ball.

"When they kick it, they kick it to put pressure on you rather than give you a free shot, so you just have to adapt and adjust with what is happening in the game. We have made a lot of changes since we last played them, so we'll see how it goes."

Like his opposite number, Schmidt is facing into what could be his final match as Ireland coach.

That this era-defining match comes against the country of his birth is significant.

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Joe Schmidt during an Ireland rugby press conference at the Hilton Tokyo Bay in Urayasu, Aichi, Japan

"Inevitably, as a four-year-old kid when I first started playing rugby, barefoot rugby in Te Aroha in New Zealand, everyone looks up to the All Blacks," he recalled.

"You watch them as a young kid and all the way through. When you get to the stage when you're coaching Super Rugby, the All Blacks are very much a part of feeding information down and helping coaches develop.

"I would have got to know Graham Henry well, I'd have a huge respect for what he built into the All Black formula.

"You're learning from that, but I think people don't realise how much philosophies are fluid. The game changes, there are subtle rule changes or there are different ways other teams play, so you have got to adjust your philosophy all the time.

"Then, you've got players who have strengths in particular areas and are not so strong in others, so you adapt.

"I think as soon as you think as a coach that, 'this is the philosophy, this is the way we do it', it's a really dangerous position to assume because the game is fluid, the way it's played is different."

So, he's adapted on the run and built his experience until this point.

On Wednesday, Hansen met with Ireland assistant Andy Farrell and chatted about the winner-takes-all element of tomorrow's match.

"One of us will be going home," he said. "But that's just the cold, hard facts about the World Cup.

"Ireland are in a situation where they haven't gone past a quarter-final so they will be doing their darnedest not to go home.

"You just hope it's a good that is not affected by cards and at the end of it no-one has got any excuses. You just have to take your fate on the chin."

For one of these coaches, that will be that.

New Zealand informed Schmidt more than any other team in his formative years and his clashes against them have defined his time in charge of Ireland.

The fifth and final battle is almost upon him. He's hoping Ireland's familiarity and cohesion will be enough against the most dangerous team in the world.

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