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Jonathan Bradley: It's now or never for Joe Schmidt and his Ireland history-makers

 

In command: Joe Schmidt at Ireland training session in Tokyo
In command: Joe Schmidt at Ireland training session in Tokyo
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Four years ago, the day before a World Cup quarter-final and Joe Schmidt was a man with more than a few headaches.

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He'd long since lost Jared Payne, his defensive organiser and starting outside centre for the past year, while the last week alone had accounted for Peter O'Mahony and Paul O'Connell, both Munstermen and vocal leaders suffering serious injuries against the French.

Sean O'Brien's suspension for throwing a punch at Pascal Pape was confirmed during the week, but it was only ahead of captain's run that the real body blow was dealt - Johnny Sexton's groin had given way and he would watch the last eight tie alongside the rest of the walking wounded in the Millennium Stadium stands.

In 2015, Ireland could ill afford to play any key game without their creative force, his absence the unwanted cherry on a week where nothing had gone right.

Fast forward four years and, despite a full World Cup cycle of trying to guard against the issue, Ireland still can't do without Sexton, but as Schmidt prepares for the game that will define his legacy at this tournament, he can count upon the ten he has built his teams around, whether in blue or green, for a decade.

Their reliance on the 34-year-old - never more obvious than the past month when they've been a different team with and without him in the side - is a problem for Andy Farrell moving forward but, in the here and now, it will be the two-time Lion pulling the strings henceforth.

Around him will be the team that Schmidt, in his final days as Ireland coach no matter what happens this morning, has built for this occasion.

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With the exception of the suspended Bundee Aki and the injured Dan Leavy, the 15 men he sends out to start in Tokyo Stadium against the All Blacks is the side that he trusted to win a Grand Slam in Twickenham just 19 months ago.

It's well-documented that form has fluctuated since, but where his side was skeletal in Cardiff last time around, this time it's full bodied. The men who replace those missing, Robbie Henshaw and Josh van der Flier, have both been there for big days in the past.

Ireland's most successful coach, the man who delivered the first back-to-back Six Nations championships since the 1940s, a first ever win against these same All Blacks in 2016 and then repeated the trick, who masterminded a maiden Test victory on South African soil and ended a near-four decade wait for a series win in the southern hemisphere, could hardly have wished for better luck on the injury front when it comes to his efforts to break Irish Rugby's most discussed glass ceiling and win a knockout game at the World Cup.

While the challenge of the opposition could hardly be greater after a loss to Japan consigned them to second place in the pool, it was no stretch prior to the tournament to believe this quarter was coming down the track given the Springboks could have won that opening contest between themselves and the Kiwis all the way back in Yokohama.

Furthermore, his entire run on side, whether in Chicago or Dublin, has experience of beating the very best before, something prior Ireland sides at this global showpiece could only have dreamed about.

And while we already know that this is the last go around for Schmidt, his captain Rory Best and scrum coach Greg Feek, the reality is that it's last chance saloon for plenty more of this squad when it comes to World Cups.

Nine of the 31-man panel that set off for Japan last month boarded the plane having already turned 30-years-old - with the exception of Conor Murray, it's hard to see any of that number making it to France in 2023.

Using 2015 as an example, there'll be unexpected casualties of time too - Payne, Luke Fitzgerald and Jamie Heaslip all retired early through injury during this cycle while, for varying reasons, Simon Zebo, Paddy Jackson, Donnacha Ryan and Ian Madigan aren't here either.

In four years time, this will have the feel of a very different era.

For this side who have already made so much history, it's now or never.

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