Ireland face New Zealand in Paris seeking to reach a maiden semi-final at the Rugby World Cup.
Andy Farrell’s men go into Saturday’s last-eight clash on a remarkable 17-match winning run but face a formidable challenge in the form of the three-time world champions.
Here, we highlight some of the major talking points.
Banishing the quarter-final curse
Ireland have topped the world rankings for 15 months and are favourites for the mouth-watering Stade de France showdown. Yet the Irish have never won a World Cup knockout match. Seven times previously they have reached the last eight of the tournament and seven times they have been sent home. The last of those early exits came at the hands of the All Blacks four years ago. Ireland have improved markedly since then and have far greater mental resolve. Farrell’s in-form side will equal the record for consecutive Test wins by a tier one nation (18) by banishing the quarter-final curse. However, standing in their way is one of the toughest challenges in world rugby.
All Blacks out for revenge
Ireland had to wait 111 years for a first Test win over New Zealand. But, having done so in memorable fashion in Chicago seven years ago, the Irish now hold the upper hand in terms of recent meetings. Farrell masterminded a stunning 2-1 tour success over the All Blacks last summer and the stage is set for another unforgettable encounter. New Zealand are not used to losing on home soil and will be out for revenge. Kiwi full-back Beauden Barrett said: “There are a lot of us who are pretty keen to get one up on them and still we’re hurting from what happened last year.” Ireland’s quest will be aided by the backing of tens of thousands of travelling fans.
An intriguing sub-plot is the presence of former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in the Kiwi camp. The 58-year-old led Ireland into the last two World Cups before joining his native country’s coaching team last summer after his six-year tenure was emphatically ended by the All Blacks in Tokyo in 2019. New Zealand coach Ian Foster outlined plans to tap into Schmidt’s extensive knowledge of the Irish. Yet veteran Ireland wing Keith Earls played down the merits of doing so, saying: “We genuinely don’t use any of the habits that Joe taught us.”
Return of the Mack
Ireland were nursing a few concerning injury issues following a bruising Pool B finale against Scotland. Yet head coach Farrell has been able to name an unchanged starting XV. Mack Hansen looked to be a major doubt after sitting out training early in the week but took part in Friday’s captain’s run with a heavily-strapped right calf. Fellow wing James Lowe (eye) has also been passed fit. Only lock James Ryan, who sustained a wrist issue against the Scots, is missing from arguably Ireland’s strongest line-up. Lowe, meanwhile, is one of three New Zealand-born players in Ireland’s team, in addition to centre Bundee Aki and scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park.
New Zealand’s preparations have been disrupted by a disciplinary storm in the build-up to the clash. Star wing Mark Telea misses out after being dropped due to a breach of team protocol. Foster insisted the issue was “nothing major” but still felt compelled to punish a player whose emergence on the international scene has been central to the All Blacks’ improvement since their series defeat to Ireland last July. Telea, who is believed to have broken a curfew, has three tries in the tournament, including a double in the opening-night defeat to hosts France. Leicester Fainga’anuku is the man to benefit after claiming a hat-trick in the Pool A thrashing of Uruguay.