All Blacks vs Ireland burning questions: Will rust doom reigning champs in crunch Rugby World Cup quarterfinal?

 stuff.co.nz  10/18/2019 07:13:00 

OPINION: It's that time again, when anxiety levels of All Blacks fans morph from a simmer to a bubbling pool of nerves. 

Sudden-death World Cup matches have that effect on some folk, particularly when the opposition has had the wood on the men in black in recent years. 

To think All Blacks fans' pre-tournament planning anticipated the All Blacks playing Scotland in the quarterfinals, not heavyweights Ireland. 

But Japan sweeping the floor with Ireland and Scotland and topping pool A sure gave rise to a brute of a twist, one which has many Kiwis on edge ahead of the big clash in Tokyo. 

Here are five burning questions ahead of the second of four quarterfinals. 

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All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick has only played about half an hour since injuring his shoulder in late July.
All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick has only played about half an hour since injuring his shoulder in late July.

1. Will rust doom the All Blacks? 

Forget about head coach Steve Hansen sugar-coating the cancellation of the All Blacks' final pool game last week. 

The cold, hard truth is two weeks will have passed since the All Blacks played a match by the time referee Nigel Owens whistles open the quarterfinal at Tokyo Stadium. 

And that training run against Namibia was preceded by a walk in the park against Canada, meaning it will be two days short of a month since their last serious test - their opening 23-13 win against the Springboks. 

All Blacks Aaron Smith (L-R), Brodie Retallick and Anton Lienert-Brown at training in Tokyo on Thursday.
ANDREW CORNAGA/PHOTOSPORT
All Blacks Aaron Smith (L-R), Brodie Retallick and Anton Lienert-Brown at training in Tokyo on Thursday.

Fear not, was Hansen's message after Typhoon Hagibis forced World Rugby to scrap their match against Six Nations chumps Italy last Saturday. 

The All Blacks instead held an intense inter-squad training session, which apparently matched a test match in some aspects. 

"It has allowed us to work really hard Friday, our GPS numbers were the equivalent, or just above what a normal test match would be," he said.

Fair enough. But you can't go past match fitness, particularly when lock Brodie Retallick has just 30 minutes under his belt since busting a shoulder against South Africa in late July. 

The All Blacks have won 19 of 22 tests refereed by Nigel Owens since 2007.
The All Blacks have won 19 of 22 tests refereed by Nigel Owens since 2007.

2. Will Nigel Owens bury the Irish?

Didn't the Irish kick up a stink when World Rugby announced chatty Welshman Nigel Owens would be in charge of the clash? 

Some fans and pundits practically waved the white flag, suggesting there was little point going through with the match because Owens was bound to bend over backwards to ensure the All Blacks advanced. 

They pointed to New Zealand's record - 19 wins from 22 tests since 2007 - when Owens has whistle in hand, adding that three of the 19 wins went down against Ireland. 

Time to get a grip. Heaven forbid, perhaps the All Blacks were simply the better team. 

Owen Franks, left, pictured getting set to do his thing at scrum time for Canterbury against Counties Manukau in Pukekohe last month.
KAI SCHWOERER/GETTY IMAGES
Owen Franks, left, pictured getting set to do his thing at scrum time for Canterbury against Counties Manukau in Pukekohe last month.

3. Is now the time to pine for Owen Franks?

It's too soon for that. But if Ireland do a number on the All Blacks' scrum, Hansen might be inclined to gander into the damp Tokyo night and wish he'd taken the 108-test tighthead to Japan. 

The sight of Angus Ta'avao on the bench won't scare the Irish in the slightest, and you can bet they'll attempt to pound the All Blacks up front.

Forecast rain in Tokyo could well turn the match into a brutal slugfest, featuring ample stoppages for scrums, meaning the argument for Ta'avao's added mobility is void. 

If it eventuates, Hansen might be inclined to play Nepo Laulala deep into the second half. 

As for Franks, he'll play his last match in New Zealand earlier on Saturday, should Canterbury fail to beat Wellington in their Mitre 10 Cup semifinal. 

All Blacks wings Sevu Reece, left, and George Bridge are preparing to be carpet bombed with high kicks by Ireland halfback Conor Murray.
ANDREW CORNAGA/PHOTOSPORT
All Blacks wings Sevu Reece, left, and George Bridge are preparing to be carpet bombed with high kicks by Ireland halfback Conor Murray.

4. Are George Bridge and Sevu Reece up to the inevitable high-ball barrage?

It's coming and wings Bridge and Reece know it. 

Irish halfback Conor Murray, arguably the best exponent of the box-kick in the game, is sure to repeatedly boom Garryowens into the night sky in a bid to test the All Blacks' outside backs. 

Ireland halfback Conor Murray uncorks a box-kick against Scotland in their World Cup opener last month.
HANNAH PETERS/GETTY IMAGES
Ireland halfback Conor Murray uncorks a box-kick against Scotland in their World Cup opener last month.

There is no chance left-wing Bridge, who continues to keep Rieko Ioane out of the team, will be surprised by the ploy. After all, earlier this week Bridge said he and Reece had been preparing to be carpet bombed by Murray. 

The expected wet conditions will only make the onslaught more difficult, but it's not like opposing teams haven't tested Bridge and the shorter Reece out in the past. 

Both have mostly been up to the task, which only creates counter-attacking opportunities for the world champions. 

5. Enough chat, who wins?

All Blacks by six points, 26-20, ensuring the three-peat remains on track, and Ireland's inability to win a World Cup playoff match drags on for at least another year. 

For the record, Kiwi bookies have the All Blacks ($1.16) as raging favourites. Ireland are $4.80 outsiders.  

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