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Alan Quinlan: Why there should be cause for Ireland optimism ahead of World Cup quarter-final against the All Blacks

Ronan O’Gara
Ronan O’Gara
Follow on: Ardie Savea and Sam Cane aren’t like predecessors

By Alan Quinlan

It's a fitting quarter-final, don't you think? Ireland's World Cup last-eight barrier has arguably never appeared so steep, yet the sub-plots, the recent history between these two teams and their astute Kiwi coaches will keep us gripped for the week.

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New Zealand remain the standard-bearers in the international arena; they are unbeaten in 18 World Cup games, and the All Black aura still has a psychological effect, even though almost three years have passed since the heavy burden of history was lifted in Chicago.

However, there should be cause for optimism at home.

This group of Kiwis, as talented as they may be, are not operating at the same level of their predecessors of four or even eight years ago.

Their key combinations are not as smooth or as settled, especially in the half-backs, midfield and back-row.

Much like adjusting to life without Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy in the Irish backline, following the rock-solid partnership of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith was always going to be a big ask.

The fearsome and balanced back-row of Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read that was so effective in 2011 and 2015 may have been the greatest loose-forward trio the game has seen.

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Read remains in situ but the 33-year-old skipper is not as dynamic as he was in his 20s. Ardie Savea and Sam Cane are talented operators and they will cause Ireland problems at the breakdown, but they don't generate the same fear factor that Kaino and McCaw once did.

It is not naive or far-fetched to be hopeful this week.

The pool stage didn't go according to plan, but Joe Schmidt is not the type of coach to overlook potential scenarios.

His homework would have been done, with reams of notes already accumulated on the All Blacks long before the defeat to Japan.

He will be highlighting All Black habits this week; which way certain players tend to step and fend and how they like to move the ball from the set-piece, that is the kind of detail he is known for.

If I was in his shoes I would be delving deeper into my contacts book this week, talking to old team-mates and coaches back in New Zealand, trying to uncover more nuggets of information in case something has been missed somewhere.

Ronan O'Gara may well see a familiar name flash up on his phone with 11 Crusaders in the All Blacks squad, the majority of whom will be in Saturday's match-day 23.

It has been only three months since ROG left their Super Rugby set-up and it's another potential resource for Schmidt to tap into, if he hasn't already.

Valuable lessons have been learned in Ireland's four most recent clashes with New Zealand; the most important being that you have to attack the All Blacks and knock them off their stride if you want to win. You must dictate terms and put them under pressure from the off.

Playing conservatively and trying to contain them doesn't work because they can hurt you from anywhere if they get half a chance.

South Africa started their pool game well against the All Blacks but failed to apply scoreboard pressure. Before they knew it, New Zealand had created a couple of open-play mismatches between backs and forwards and they were leading 17-3.

It's with that approach in mind, too, that I would be leaning towards picking Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Beirne from the start this weekend.

Rob Kearney and Peter O'Mahony would be unlucky to miss out; the calls are that marginal in my mind, but the dynamism and ability with ball in hand of the less-experienced pair is too hard to ignore for a game that Ireland will likely need to score heavily in.

With Bundee Aki unavailable, the midfield partnership, and the rest of the team, more or less picks itself.

O'Mahony or Rhys Ruddock may have come into the equation for a start at No.7 against a heavier Springboks pack, but Josh van der Flier's speed on the openside is too important against an outfit as mobile as the All Blacks.

In an ideal world you would want more than six days to prepare for such a daunting challenge but remember, New Zealand haven't had a competitive match since September 21.

When they run out on Saturday it will be four weeks since they've genuinely felt under pressure and that may make it difficult for Steve Hansen's side to click from the off.

The challenge is monumental, make no mistake about it, but if Ireland can deliver their best performance of the year they should still be there or thereabouts. The death knell hasn't sounded just yet.

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