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Chris Henry: Even perfect game may not be enough to beat All Blacks

Tadhg Furlong in action against New Zealand
Tadhg Furlong in action against New Zealand
Chris Henry

By Chris Henry

My one and only experience of playing the All Blacks was 25 minutes I’ll never forget... whether I want to or not.

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It was my second cap, two years after the first, and we were 41-0 down when I came on for Kevin McLaughlin. Things didn’t get any better from there, the final score infamously reading 60-0.

It was rugby from a different planet, those Kiwi teams between their World Cup triumphs among the best we’ve ever seen.

I’ll always remember the pace with which they played, next level stuff. It was probably no coincidence that the closest I came to a big tackle was on Romain Poite, the referee.

The feeling after, even against the All Blacks, is one of shell-shock. How can you lose a Test 60-0? That it seems incomprehensible now shows the progress Ireland have made in a few short years. They’re in a very different place now and, ahead of Saturday’s mouth-watering quarter-final, I think a very different place to where we found ourselves at this stage four years ago.

The mindset you have to nurture in international rugby is such that, even as we lost the players we did, I still thought we’d be fine against Argentina. Better than fine. But looking back now it’s clear that we were decimated, few teams could have coped with the injuries that hit us that week. It was ripping out the spine of a good side.

But while there’s never a good time to face the All Blacks, to have reached this stage of the World Cup with 31 fit players — Jack Conan’s early departure and Bundee Aki’s ban notwithstanding — is a stark contrast to the position we found ourselves in.

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I saw Johnny Sexton talking about the emotional energy expended in the week prior against France building into that Argentina defeat and it’s a point I’d echo entirely. Again, it stings to say as I was involved, but essentially we had our Japan moment. Just as Ireland flagged this time the week after beating Scotland, there’s no doubt having such a mental hurdle to overcome in the last pool game drained us for the quarters.

This time, having beaten Russia and then fairly clinically disposed of Samoa, there’s the required sense of business as usual heading into the knockouts. When you reach this stage, there are areas of the game that are non-negotiable.

The set-piece needs to function and the defence, which has been strong, needs to go up a level. Errors need to be at a minimum and when one comes, it needs flushed from the system.

Too often of late it’s been a case of layering mistake upon mistake and when you start doing that against New Zealand it’s like a drop of blood in shark-infested waters.

The extras that you need are in a similar vein to November’s victory in Dublin and Jacob Stockdale’s winning try. We need to see not just anything and everything that Joe Schmidt has left in his bag of tricks but all of it executed to perfection.

Ireland could do this, play their best game of the year and still lose — that’s what the All Blacks are capable of. That, though, is World Cup rugby. You have to beat them some time.

Aki has his card marked under new tackle laws

Being honest about it, when I see some of the cards that are being dished out at this World Cup, I'm happy to have my playing days behind me.

I never would have had the same propensity to make a crunching hit like Bundee Aki does but at the same time, the strength in my tackle was in the back end and I did go certainly higher than a chop more often that not. Under the current framework, I'm sure I'd have had quite a few more cards than I ultimately did over the years.

The fact of the matter is, though, these are the laws of the game and that's how it should be as collisions become fiercer and awareness over the dangers of concussion grows.

It's unfortunate for Aki as we're talking about split second reactions and decisions. The fact of the matter is simply that it's a red card under the laws we're playing by.

By the same token, I can understand the argument that a tackle like that with no malice doesn't warrant a three-week ban when we're talking about missing games carrying the magnitude of a World Cup quarter-final against the All Blacks.

Again, though, to look at the picture purely in black and white, once you start making concessions it weakens the zero tolerance stance that World Rugby have outlined. I'm bitterly disappointed for Aki but sadly that's the way it is.

On the whole, at least centre is one of Ireland's deeper positions. I'd have wanted to see Robbie Henshaw in there for sure and Garry Ringrose has been one of Ireland's best players.

It's fitting that Japan got to book knockout spot in some style

Like all rugby fans, I spent the weekend with my fingers tightly crossed that Japan versus Scotland in Yokohama would go ahead as planned amid Typhoon Hagibis.

Under the circumstances naturally our first thoughts are always with those who have lost loved ones, their homes or their livelihoods, but in a strictly sporting sense it would have been a real shame to have this World Cup remembered for abandoned games and their effect on the quarter-finals.

Scotland would rightly have been furious had they been knocked out in that manner but, knowing what we do now, imagine if Japan's historic place in the knockouts was remembered not for their incredible performances but for a postponement.

They deserved to soak up the glory in Yokohama because they've been fantastic, not just on Sunday but throughout this entire tournament.

It doesn't always come across but the difference between a good pass and a bad one can be as little as six inches. In that context, the accuracy with which Japan are playing is quite incredible and it's been a joy to watch. I expected them to beat Scotland but not to that degree while some of the tries they managed to score were simply breathtaking.

It's going to be fascinating to see how they go against South Africa, and what a fixture after the events of four years ago in Brighton. The Springboks will no doubt try to impose their own style on a game they won't want to be fast and loose but Ireland and Scotland both attempted the same with no joy in slowing down the breakdown.

Pull off another shock and I'm sure we'll see teams exploring all kinds of options to best mirror Japan's unusual preparation in four years' time. It was a bold call to pull players from frontline action for so long prior to the tournament but the proof has been in the performances.

Imagine what other tier two nations could do with similar time spent together in training?

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