The All Blacks produced a defensive masterclass on Saturday to destroy Ireland and remind all and sundry why they are favourites to win the 2019 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI at the Tokyo Stadium.
Passion isn’t enough to pull a team through a World Cup playoff. Ask Ireland, who appeared to have the entire Irish diaspora packed into the stands of the Tokyo Stadium for the quarter-final showdown against the All Blacks.
A deafening rendition of Ireland’s Call shook the stadium before kick-off. The ‘Fields of Atherny’ filled the ground when the All Blacks laid down the challenge of Kapa o Pango haka.
For a moment, it felt like the game was being played in Dublin and that the energy rolling out of the stands in waves would carry Joe Schmidt’s charges beyond the mighty All Blacks and into the semi-finals.
The All Blacks, however, were unmoved and unrattled.
They absorbed the attacking pressure exerted by Ireland in the early stages. They slowed Ireland down at the breakdown. They flew off the line and into the faces of the Ireland halfbacks.
Ireland failed to cope with that pressure. They missed their jumpers at the lineout and failed to exit efficiently. Their flat attack was punished severely when it persisted with those tip-passes in spite of the advancing defensive line.
The All Blacks, on the other hand, were clinical and ruthless after securing possession deep in Ireland territory.
The quality of their passing and catching under pressure was out of this world. The kick-pass out to the wings caught the Ireland defence out on several occasions.
It’s been a long time since the All Blacks produced such a magical attacking performance against top-flight opposition. This performance and ultimately the massive victory, however, was rooted in an uncompromising defensive effort and a sharply executed kicking strategy.
The ploy to pair playmakers Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett in the same backline continues to pay off for New Zealand. The duo will receive due praise for their individual attacking performances against Ireland. More should be made, however, about how the pair and Aaron Smith marshalled the team either from the set piece or on the counter-attack. The tempo of the All Blacks game is directly related to the decision-making of their key players.
England made a statement of their own in the earlier quarter-final against Australia in Oita. Eddie Jones’ side was uncompromisingly physical on defence and played the game in the right areas. On the back of that superior defensive and tactical-kicking display, they scored some outstanding tries.
While the scorelines of the first two quarter-finals have been surprising, the manner in which the All Blacks and England went about their business was largely expected. One would expect Wales and South Africa to follow suit in the remaining playoffs on Sunday.
Whether any of those teams can stop the All Blacks juggernaut from storming to a third-straight World Cup title, however, remains to be seen. Matching New Zealand’s physicality, slowing their tempo and ultimately nullifying those star players will be easier said than done.
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