History is against Ireland as they prepare for their World Cup semi-final this afternoon in Chofu. Across eight editions of this tournament, the national side has never been beyond the semi-finals. This has been the case even when, as in 2011 and 2015, they had done the hard work and won their pools. This year, after a loss to Japan, they took second place in Pool A and, as a result, find themselves lining up against New Zealand. This could well be the final game with coach Joe Schmidt at the helm for the Irish, although he won’t be viewing it that way – not least because a win here for Ireland could make this into a job interview of sorts for the Kiwi, who has overseen the Emerald Isle’s first two wins, ever, over the All Blacks.
Indeed, those wins have come in two of the last three games between these sides. Few teams, if any, have as impressive a recent record against the team ranked Number One in the world. Although most of the pointers are steadily indicating against an Irish win, the men in green will be reminding themselves and each other that this is a side that contains numerous players with at least one career win over today’s opponent. Names like James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale, who both start today, have never tasted defeat against the All Blacks – so what are Ireland fans so scared of?
A history of shocking starts in knockout games
At the last four World Cups, Ireland have made the last eight three times. On each of those occasions, they have conceded a try within the first five minutes of their quarter-final. Four years ago, they went into a game against Argentina favoured to win for the first time ever at this stage. Within thirteen minutes of kick-off, they were 17-0 down, having conceded an opening try after less than three. So it could be said that there’s legitimate cause for apprehension in this game, considering that New Zealand are better than any opponent Ireland have ever faced at this stage.
Bear in mind that the favourites here last lost a World Cup game in 2007, and that they topped their pool despite their final game being postponed (and thus being considered to have drawn, 0-0, against Italy). New Zealand may have lost two of their last three against Ireland, but the latter of those two defeats was not a huge surprise. A defeat here today would be. More likely, New Zealand will take advantage of Ireland’s early-game frailties. With Betway they are 19/20 to have scored more than 20.5 points by half time. It’s reasonable to expect this will be the case.
Ireland will be cursing the fact that the World Cup has fallen this year rather than last. In 2018, off the back of a Six Nations grand slam, they went on to have the perfect autumn, with the sign-off coming as they defeated the All Blacks 16-9. They kept the world’s most-feared opponent under ten points, stopped them scoring any tries, and on that night, Ireland looked like the world’s best side, Schmidt the best coach. 2019 has not been so impressive, but one thing might be hanging in the minds of people who remember the aftermath of last autumn’s clash.
When Jacob Stockdale went over for the game’s only try, it was after a move that had taken shape in a corner of Schmidt’s mind years prior, something he had noticed in a previous contest and filed away for future use. A scrupulous coach, it seems improbable that he won’t have a few things squirreled away in a corner of his brain given that this is a World Cup quarter final. Given that you can get 14/1 at Unibet for Stockdale to again score the first try against the All Blacks, it’s a bet worth making.
Realistically, it’s farewell to Ireland and farewell to Schmidt
Optimistic Ireland fans will look on the historic clues to a possible result here and argue that if anyone can beat the All Blacks, it’s them. They will note, as we have, that Schmidt is the very kind of coach who tucks a potential game-winning move away in a corner of his mind for just such an occasion as this. These are persuasive points, in fairness, but for them to hold much water we would need to accept that all of 2018 up to now – Ireland’s sloppiness against England and Wales in the Six Nations, and their second-half lifelessness against Japan – were part of some major exercise in psychology. It’s not impossible that that could be the case, it’s just hugely unlikely.
Most Ireland fans will feel a little more comfortable if this team, like no Irish side in the last sixteen years, can get beyond the fifth minute without conceding a cheap try. However, over the course of the game it is hard to see an Irish team that has been ordinary too often finding what it takes to win this game. With a handicap of 13.5, New Zealand are 21/20 with 888sport to win this game by two clear tries. If Irish heads go down in this game, as they may do should the team get behind, that price could end up looking very generous.
Bets of the Day
New Zealand to win (-13.5) (888, 21/20); Jacob Stockdale to score first try (Unibet, 14/1); New Zealand 1st half points (>20.5) (Betway, 19/20)