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Neil Francis: If they play like Spartans, then Ireland can topple champions

Believe: Ireland celebrate their victory over New Zealand last year
Believe: Ireland celebrate their victory over New Zealand last year

By Neil Francis

A Scotsman walks into a bar and orders a drink. Usually there is an Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman involved in this joke but they are all still in Japan at the World Cup. We wait to see who, if anyone, joins the kilt next week.

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There has been a nagging sense of deflation about Ireland's performances - even their win against Scotland in the pool stages did not reassure and it got to the point where I said: "Ireland will beat Samoa but if they are not in a position to contest and give everything, absolutely everything, against New Zealand then they should consider coming home instead and sparing us the agony."

At the very least we will get a performance but Joe Schmidt and, crucially, Andy Farrell will have their team primed and I have a strong feeling that Ireland can and will turn New Zealand over.

Sport has its own curious logic and a jump in attitude can sustain and fortify a team. Ireland, if they play like Spartans, have a chance.

This is a match pregnant with implication and one which would represent, if successful, the greatest ever Irish victory. It is a knockout game and it is back to that term that I have used throughout this World Cup - at the time of asking, what are Ireland prepared to do?

Everybody, it seems, wants to look forward and the All Blacks themselves have been keen not to revisit any of their losses or near misses against Ireland but I think it is imperative that Ireland look back so they can anticipate what is going to happen this Saturday.

The wins in Chicago and last November at the Aviva will be instructive but what will be of greater benefit to Schmidt's side is to analyse what happened at the Aviva in 2016, two weeks after the famous win in Chicago. You don't beat the All Blacks twice in a row and what struck me about the New Zealand response was the dark undertow of aggression that manifested in that game. They won that match 21-9 but it was pockmarked with acts of cynical aggression and foul play.

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In the post-match, Ireland's then manager Mick Kearney's report gave a flavour of what had taken place on the park. The citing officer had noted 12 citable incidences in the match - one against Ireland and, significantly, 11 against New Zealand.

That gives you a snapshot of what New Zealand are prepared to do to win a match and first in their constitution is to ramp up their aggression and their cynicism on the field of play.

That day Ireland had three players who had come off the field with concussion - CJ Stander, Rob Kearney and Robbie Henshaw. Sam Cane's shoulder-to-face tackle on Henshaw still rankles.

Quite how Malakai Fekitoa got away with his head-high slingshot tackle on Simon Zebo was another mystery. Bottom line was that New Zealand were not under any circumstances facing the embarrassment of losing to the Paddies again.

Only recently Australia had the temerity to put 47 points on a 14-man All Black side in Perth. There was a redemptive return fixture in Auckland with a similar performance of exaggerated aggression.

The final score was 36-0. It was a devastating statement of intent. You embarrass us like that and you know what is coming.

The All Blacks have been reminded constantly of their 16-9 loss in the Aviva last November. A match which once and for all would decide who was the best team on the planet. Ireland won but the Kiwis logged a note to remember that, at some stage at the World Cup, if both sides were serious about it, they would end up meeting.

We know what is going to happen on Saturday morning - it will be a match of unprecedented aggression and, while both sides are capable of playing flowing rugby, I fear that the first-half in particular will be remembered for each side's ability to inflict grievous damage on the other, inside and outside the law.

This is a far from vintage New Zealand team. They still have enough firepower but their starting tight five is one that is not going to put the fear of God into you, however it is how they perform as a collective that makes them so good.

Brodie Retallick only got a short run-out against Namibia and will be on the bench, it seems. We don't need to be reminded that games are won up front and so the prime battle will be how Ireland's second-row perform.

Iain Henderson and James Ryan have been pretty good throughout the tournament and it is time for them to produce a stellar performance and subjugate their vaunted rivals. The South African pack made hay for half an hour but could not sustain it. In the second-half, they were chasing shadows and a scoreboard deficit.

It is significant that in that loss to the All Blacks in 2016 at the Aviva, Johnny Sexton was only on the park for 15 minutes and his emotional intelligence and field management were badly missed. Ireland know at this stage how to unsettle New Zealand and no man knows better than Sexton.

The underdog, which undoubtedly Ireland are in this case, never gets anything for free. There are, though, one or two weaknesses in this New Zealand side - none more so than right winger Sevu Reece, who was nearly playing his rugby for Connacht a season or two ago.

Reece has been scoring tries for fun for the Crusaders this year and he has that Joe Rokocoko-type ability to ease his way out of tackles and score from seemingly impossible positions but the Fijian, like many of his countrymen, does not like ball put in behind him.

Ireland will pick on him from the very off and crowd some chasers into his corridor.

Richie Mo'unga has had an armchair ride with the Crusaders and then with the All Blacks. Think how good Lima Sopoaga was for the All Blacks and how completely average he is for Wasps. Mo'unga is brave and does not shirk his defensive duties but Ireland will get him into uncomfortable positions.

The other element is how to play Beauden Barrett, a superior player and a man who can see what is definitively on before anyone else is even vaguely aware of the possibilities. New Zealand place a greater emphasis on getting the ball into his hands even from unlikely positions. It is an imperative that there is a hornets' nest applying pressure on him and that the first tackle is sure.

For sure, Ireland will need some inter-planetary alignment. They must not concede early and must keep 15 men on the pitch. Then it is down to will, desire and intelligence. We know what aggression is coming - "but he that dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose".

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