Eleven months has proved to be a long time for the All Blacks and Ireland.
Predicting Damian McKenzie, Liam Squire, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Owen Franks would have missed the plane to Japan would have been brave, whatever your reasons. If you also said that Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane wouldn’t have been in the matchday squad come the knock out stages, then buy yourself a lotto ticket.
A new back row combination, an uncertain midfield, a refreshed back three, a different duel playmaker pairing. Some enforced, some by choice. It’s a level of change you expect over a World Cup cycle, not in less than a year.
For Joe Schmidt, the personnel remains largely the same. Twelve of the starting line up from the 16-9 victory in Dublin are in place for this hugely anticipated quarter final. Of the others, Bundee Aki is suspended, Conor Murray was injured that day and Devin Toner fell out of favour just as the squad was announced and missed out on his Airmiles.
Form and results however took a dive. Their defence of the Grand Slam saw convincing defeats to England and Wales. World Cup warm up fixtures saw a thrashing at Twickenham and then there was Japan.
Any last eight encounter for Ireland was bound to be difficult, but one against the All Blacks instead of South Africa was less preferable. When the Mission Statement is to make the last four (having never managed that in eight previous attempts) and you are coming up against the defending champions, then you are up against it.
Despite scheduled rain, it appears to be a match that will see a contrast in styles; Ireland with big defence, keeping it tight when they have the ball. Conor Murray with the box kicks to clear their lines and test out Reece and Bridge. Phase, after phase, after phase. Big plays from set piece to try and carve an opening. It’s all worked before.
The All Blacks have the firepower, the X Factor. Inexperienced out wide but fresh too. Risk and reward is something Hansen isn’t afraid of. For everything Joe Schmidt has kept in his locker until now, you can be sure Hansen has something of his own.
One of the keys for me, is whether the All Blacks can get wide quickly. If they can, then Ireland tend to pay a narrow defence and suddenly they will be scrambling; they’ve got the ability to make those cover tackles, but keeping it up for 80 minutes is a big ask. From Ireland’s perspective, can Murray’s box kicks and Sexton’s crossfield kicks put the All Blacks under enough pressure to force crucial mistakes?
Up front, I’m expecting parity in the set piece and in the loose. Despite struggles against Japan, Ireland should be back to their best at line-out time and they’ll need to be. Steve Hansen says Brodie Retallick can play the full 80 if he needs to; he might have to.
Can both teams keep fifteen players on the pitch throughout? Don’t bet on it. The number of cards in this tournament has been disappointing and the last thing we want is more of that. Both teams have been pretty good at keeping penalties to a minimum. Ten or less each will be the aim and if Jordie Barrett comes on, Rory Best’s men won’t want to concede any closer than the All Blacks ten metre line.
If I was picking a combined team, then the All Blacks would have the clear majority of starters, but despite that the starting lineups are relatively close. For me, the difference is the quality and depth off the bench. It’s something that’s been particularly strong under Steve Hansen, especially when the likes of Beauden Barrett and Ardie Savea were among the replacements. It’s not quite as good now, but it still leaves Ireland in the shade.
Since 2007, the All Blacks have not only been the best side in the World, they have also been the strongest mentally. Ireland have broken the glass ceiling by defeating the All Blacks twice, but getting into the last four is another huge barrier to overcome.
After tonight, either Steve Hansen’s or Joe Schmidt’s time in charge of their respective teams will come to an end as will their rivalry.
Sorry Joe, All Blacks by thirteen.
Follow Aiden on Twitter