With New Zealand’s first match in the Rugby World Cup just a few days away, we take a look at the star players who will be key to their Webb Ellis trophy prospects in Japan.
The skipper silenced critics from the defeat to Australia in Bledisloe 1 as he orchestrated his forwards and battered the Wallabies defence in their final match at Eden Park. He leads from the front, looked still at his aggressive best and tackles his heart out. Keeps the team composed at all times, something that will be key come the latter stages of the World Cup.
His physicality can set the tone for his team in defence and at the breakdown. At 6’ 10”, the line-out is his obvious chief strength, but he can pop up anywhere, has great ball skills and awareness and never stands back from anyone. He is ruled out until the knockout stages but, when playing, he is one of the All Blacks’ most important players.
Hasn’t put a foot wrong in the last three matches and looks odds on to start at fly-half. Although many would prefer Barrett at 10 at Ben Smith at 15, Hansen wants both his key playmakers on the field. Solid in defence, the 26-year-old takes great control of the game and looks to create at every opportunity.
Position: Fly-half or full-back
The two-time World Player of the Year might be preferred at fly-half rather than full-back, but he can attack from deep, eye gaps than other players can’t normally see and use all his skill and intelligence to put the likes of Seevu Reece and Rieko Ioane into formidable attacking positions. Can also pair well with Mo’unga in Hansen’s dual play-making tactic.
The 22-year-old’s form has been called into question in recent months but, when firing, he can cause serious damage with ball in hand. The Auckland man has scored 23 tries in 26 matches and has the searing pace, clever footwork and strength to inspire the All Blacks to a fourth Webb Ellis crown.
Ireland’s most capped scrum-half Peter Stringer believes Joe Schmidt’s dream of bowing out as the first Irish head coach to guide them to a World Cup semi-final is possible.
Schmidt will bring down the curtain on six years of stunning success after the tournament, six years that have included two historic wins over world champions New Zealand, a first series victory over Australia in nearly 40 years and three Six Nations titles, including a Grand Slam in 2018.
The Kiwi coach is keen to atone for the bitter memory of the disappointing quarter-final exit to Argentina at the 2015 World Cup.
Drawn in a relatively easy qualifying pool with Scotland, Russia, Japan and Samoa, it is the opener against the Scots on Sunday that is likely to shape the fate of the pool, with the winner potentially playing a resurgent South Africa in the quarter-finals and the loser taking on New Zealand.
And, Stringer – who made 98 appearances for the Men in Green – believes anything is possible as Ireland bid to reach the last four for the first time.
“If Ireland get over Scotland and Japan, and based on the result of New Zealand and South Africa early on, you know who you are going to be playing if you qualify for a quarter-final and that’s plenty of motivation. They will have a focus a few weeks in advance then,” Stringer said, speaking to Sport360 at McGettigan’s JLT this week.
“The opportunity of playing in a quarter-final and getting over that hurdle into a semi-final, if they can do it, then anything can happen.”
The key for Ireland is to be primed and firing for their opening two matches against Scotland and Japan, games that will set the tone of how they will play for the rest of the tournament.
With uncertainty over the fitness of Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw, the Men in Green will be without three of their front line players for Sunday’s game in Yokohama.
However, Stringer believes Ireland need to be ready as favourable early results will provide them with fresh motivation for the rest of the tournament.
“In the 2007 World Cup, I had an awful experience because we didn’t hit the ground running and we didn’t play well in the first two matches. And that had a knock-on effect in the last two matches,” he recalls.
“Ireland need to be set for the first two matches. It gives them an opportunity to play full strength, and then rest some guys and give some other lads an opportunity to play in the two final pool matches.
“You get over the first two games with the starting 15. You basically know you’re going to be in the quarter-finals.
“You will have those two-three weeks to prepare for the opposition you know you are going to be facing. That’s enough motivation for these guys.”
Stringer, who won three Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam during his 12 years in an Ireland jersey, says he hopes Schmidt has a grand plan to have the team peaking at the right time after several below par performances this year, including a record 57-15 defeat to England last month.
Schmidt is one of the leading coaches in world rugby with his renowned meticulous attention to detail and planning. And despite a disappointing year to date, it is all about the World Cup for him and nothing else.
“The England game was a bit of a disaster. You question how they would go after that and the strength of the squad,” added Stringer. “I was really worried after seeing how they capitulated and they had nothing to offer late on in that game at Twickenham. But they responded well against Wales.
“You hope Joe Schmidt has some master plan in his head and has the team peaking for the right time. You have to be ready for the Scotland game, but to be realistic, Ireland should get to a quarter-final and that’s another five weeks away.
“It gives Ireland a brilliant opportunity to keep working on things and keep developing that game plan. You’d like to put your trust in Joe and what he’s done over the last few years and he will get it right.”
Rugby is a game of patience, and even promising performances and an avoidance of injury in the pool stages will change the otherwise gloomy narrative and inspire a nation.
In order to beat the top teams, Ireland need to bring something different to the table and a more varied game plan is the only way to upset powerhouse nations like New Zealand, England and South Africa.
A positive performance against Wales in the final warm-up match two weeks ago has fans confident again, but those attacking and defensive bursts need to be consistent, according to Stringer.
“There was a glimpse of 2018 in the way Ireland dominated against Wales a few weeks ago. It’s nice to see that but I want to see a more varied game plan against the likes of England, New Zealand and South Africa, games where you might not necessary win the gain line each time,” he added.
“I want Ireland be able to come up with a Plan B when we come up against a bigger team and a bigger set of forwards where we’re not gaining that same dominance.
“We’ve seen what England have done in the past, stalling that attacking plan, knocking us back over the gain line, and forcing us to play off slow ball.
“It’s about developing a consistent game plan and I hope there is more to come from Ireland that will see us get to the semi-finals.”
Rob Kearney will have the chance to prove his fitness on Wednesday, with the Leinster full-back still in contention to face Scotland on Sunday despite “tightness” in his calf.
The 33-year-old picked up a calf issue in Ireland training on Monday, and now faces a race against time to be ready for the World Cup opener in Yokohama.
Ireland are already likely to be without Robbie Henshaw this weekend, with the powerhouse centre battling a hamstring complaint.
But Irish hopes remain high that both Kearney and winger Keith Earls, who is working through a thigh problem, can be fit in time to face the Scots.
“Rob Kearney has a bit of tightness in his calf, and that will be managed across Tuesday,” said an Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) spokesman.
“We hope he’ll be out running on Wednesday so we will be able to update after that.
“Keith Earls ran on Monday, while Joey Carbery trained fully on Monday too.”
Ireland still hope Henshaw can shake off his hamstring problem in time to feature across the tournament, but scrum coach Greg Feek said on Monday that the British and Irish Lions star is “very, very unlikely” to be fit for the Scotland clash.
Head coach Joe Schmidt has opted not to replace Henshaw, even though the likes of Will Addison remain on standby back at home.
Fears were raised on Monday that Kearney’s injury issue could develop into something serious, but Ireland remain adamant that the 92-cap star still has a chance to play this weekend.
Losing Kearney, Earls and Henshaw would force Ireland to rip up their first-choice backline, but now Irish bosses are confident that will not prove the case.
Should Kearney and Earls recover then Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell would battle it out to partner Bundee Aki in the centres.
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