Ireland insist they will not blink in the battle of the analysis mind games ahead of Saturday’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final clash with New Zealand.
All Blacks boss Steve Hansen lit the fuse on a potentially explosive week on Monday by vowing to lay false traps for Ireland’s master tactician head coach Joe Schmidt.
Schmidt is famed for developing one-off strike moves to outwit opponents, with Jacob Stockdale scoring the decisive try from one such ruse in Ireland’s maiden Dublin win over New Zealand in November.
That 16-9 triumph has in part drawn the All Blacks to push into a more expansive attacking style, and the two sides’ Tokyo clash on Saturday will doubtless prove an intriguing last-eight battle.
But even if All Blacks boss Hansen does set a few surprise moves for his Kiwi compatriot Schmidt, forwards coach Simon Easterby believes Ireland will be able to adapt on the run.
“I think there’s no game where you don’t try to manipulate the opposition, whether that’s setting in a different way in certain situations in the game on attack or defence,” said Easterby.
“I’ve no doubt they’ll have something we haven’t seen before and we’ll have something they haven’t seen before.
“So it’s part and parcel of the game these days, every side is analysed, there’s a lot of work goes on in the background to try and figure out how teams play the game, how they attack, how they defend.
“But ultimately it’s about going out and trying to be physical and trying to impose your game on the opposition, whether that’s in attack or defence. And we’ll be no different from them in that respect.”
New Zealand reacted to that November loss to Ireland at the Aviva Stadium by drawing up blueprints for a backline reshuffle.
Head coach Hansen has paired Richie Mo’unga at fly-half with Beauden Barrett at full-back, a twin playmaking combination that has already helped the All Blacks see off South Africa 23-13 in the pool stages.
New Zealand are bidding for an unprecedented third successive World Cup triumph, with the All Blacks firm favourites to prevail in Tokyo on Saturday.
When quizzed on the All Blacks’ dual playmaking options, Easterby insisted Ireland cannot afford to be fixated with one aspect of their supreme all-court approach.
“I guess every team gets to a point where they must keep evolving and try to stay ahead of their opposition, and we’re no different either,” said Easterby.
“They have so many threats across the park and can play in a number of different styles according to their personnel.
“You cannot switch off for a moment against them, and that’s part of the challenge.”
Welsh referee Nigel Owens will take charge of the encounter.
“I think it’s a good appointment, I think we’re familiar with him, so are the All Blacks,” said Easterby.
“He does a lot of Rugby Championship games, he gets a lot of coverage there.
“So I think he’s good, a good appointment, and both camps will be pretty happy to see Nigel out in the middle.
“He’s got a good way about him, he’ll allow the game to flow but will also be across all the set-piece work and I think he’ll be a good man to have in the middle.”
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England rate Billy Vunipola as “very likely” to be available for Saturday’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Australia at Oita Stadium.
In a major lift to Eddie Jones’ men, the powerful Saracens number eight is on course to recover from the ankle injury that forced him off at half-time against Argentina 10 days ago.
Jones names his team to face the Wallabies on Thursday and Vunipola, the only player to have started all 12 of England’s Tests this year, will be an automatic selection if fit.
“Billy is progressing really well,” defence coach John Mitchell said.
“He has trained again today and we are very confident in his progression each day. He’s very likely (to be available).
“Billy is a very important player to us and a very likeable player as well. He fits well within the team.
“He loves the ball in his hand. He is very good at regaining and retaining momentum. He likes carrying the ball which is where he has his greatest influence.”
While the update over Vunipola has been positive, it appears increasingly unlikely that wing Jack Nowell will play any part in the quarter-final.
Having recovered from ankle surgery and being forced to have his appendix removed, Nowell’s comeback against the Pumas came at the cost of a hamstring injury that has prevented him from taking a full part in training.
“Jack wasn’t at training today. He is on another prescription of training and is also progressing,” Mitchell said.
Bundee Aki will miss the rest of the Rugby World Cup after receiving a three-match ban for his red card against Samoa.
The Ireland centre was sent off in the 47-5 Pool A win over the Samoans in Fukuoka on Saturday, for a high tackle on UJ Seuteni.
Aki faced a disciplinary hearing in Tokyo on Monday night, contesting the red card decision in a bid to be available for Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand.
But the 29-year-old failed in that quest and was hit with a three-week ban, that would even rule him out of the World Cup final, should Ireland make it that far.
“The player sought to overturn the red card,” read a World Rugby statement, confirming the three-week suspension.
“Having considered all the angles of the incident, together with evidence from the player and his representatives, the committee upheld the decision of the referee.”
The independent disciplinary committee of Adam Casselden, Frank Hadden and Valeriu Toma rejected Aki’s and Ireland’s attempts to have the red card rescinded.
And that leaves head coach Joe Schmidt’s men one player short for the remainder of the tournament.
Aki would have been pushing hard for a start in Saturday’s New Zealand clash, but his absence could pave the way for fit-again Robbie Henshaw to partner Garry Ringrose in midfield.
Aki has 48 hours to appeal the decision, so has the right to launch a further challenge. But precious few attempts yield a reversal of the original ruling.
Ireland flew out specialist lawyer Derek Hegarty to Japan for Aki’s disciplinary hearing, but the William Fry partner was unable to convince the panel to overturn the red card decision.
World Rugby ruled there were no “clear and obvious mitigating factors” to account for Aki’s high tackle, and imposed an initial six-week suspension that was halved on account of the Connacht star’s good disciplinary record.
Head coach Schmidt had hinted Ireland would respect the outcome of the disciplinary hearing come what may when speaking straight after the weekend’s bonus-point win over Samoa.
“Once it’s a red card you sense a loss of control over what happens next, no matter what you try to present,” said Schmidt.
“There is a very hard line being taken and we’ll just have to accept whatever decision is made by the judiciary.”
Ireland issued a short statement in the wake of Aki’s ban, and will now weigh up whether to launch an appeal against the decision.
“The Ireland management are disappointed with the outcome of Bundee’s hearing and will review the judicial committee’s written report once received,” read the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) statement.