This is a team that has never progressed to the World Cup semifinals. There’s a lot on Johnny Sexton’s shoulders. This could be Rory Best’s last Test match. And they have beaten the All Blacks twice in the last three matches. The All Blacks will not have forgotten those defeats in Chicago and Dublin, just like we didn’t forget the 15-9 loss to England at Twickenham in 1993. We had to wait two years, until the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, for the chance to exact our revenge.
Ireland has helped the All Blacks reset the dial, like Australia did in Perth back in August.
The number of cards we have seen in this tournament is a worry, but we have a good, experienced referee in Nigel Owens for this one.
Richie Mo’unga has grown nicely into the No 10 jersey, and you’ve got to have Beauden Barrett on the pitch, even if it’s at loosehead prop! He’s a special individual and it’s not a case of playing him out of position, as we have done in past World Cups.
I was in Dublin last night giving a speech to around 150 Irishmen, and they are very confident they can spring the upset and tip over the All Blacks. I had to disabuse of them of that notion and told them that, if I was a betting man, the All Blacks will deliver tonight, and give them a whack. I walked them through the fact the All Blacks will be a different animal tonight and it will be the men in black, and not in emerald green, who will be pumping their chests at fulltime.
In using Sonny Bill Williams and Jordie Barrett off the bench, some might say that Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty have played their last Test matches, but I would flip that and say that this shows we are blessed with such strong depth in the squad. Most teams in the quarter-finals will say they have 15 quality players. The All Blacks have 23 quality players and that could be the difference tonight. The dynamics of raising the crossbar, forcing the competition, has been good for this All Blacks group, with the likes of Sevu Reece and George Bridge playing their way in over the last two months.
I cannot see the cancellation of the Italy game having any effect on the All Blacks’ approach. They know what they are doing and will have trained accordingly.
Losing Bundee Aki is a real shame for Ireland. He is a cornerstone in that Ireland midfield and offers potency with and without the ball. The Irish acknowledge that his absence could be a game changer, but Robbie Henshaw is a good, solid, footballer in his own right. Don’t think he will not front up tonight.
Ireland will play its usual game plan. It’s a regimented one but has been effective under Joe Schmidt, so do not expect much flashy stuff unless they’re playing catch-up footy.
I’ll take the All Blacks by 37-19 if they are in dry conditions, or 27-15 if it’s wet.
The other three quarter-finals will be fascinating.
I’m an old teammate and roommate of Warren Gatland, so I would love to see Wales beat France and reach the semis again, but beware France, which has reached this stage without really firing too many shots, even though Les Bleus did edge Argentina. Wales will take a tight one.
South Africa should be too strong for Japan, despite the great run of the hosts in this tournament. The Japanese have won the hearts of the rugby world and their fans, but the physicality of the Boks will wear them down.
England is the better team, with better form, when looking at the clash against Australia. But the Wallabies are hard to write off, especially if they bring the sparkling rugby they showed in that second half against Wales.
Bring it all on.