Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Steve Hansen unconcerned by time off but All Blacks may be rusty for Ireland clash'
If the All Blacks’ tournament was going as planned, they wouldn’t have needed a maximum intensity training session last Friday.
In the absence of a match, they were forced to go at it hard between themselves in Nagoya before battening down the hatches to ride out Typhoon Hagibis.
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They will either be fighting fresh or undercooked in Tokyo this Saturday, four weeks after their last match of note against South Africa. We won’t know until the game kicks off and, in truth, neither will they.
The balance of being able to arrive at the quarter-final stage of a World Cup ready to perform is a difficult one to achieve, and Ireland and New Zealand are in very different shape at the end of an imbalanced pool stage.
Like Ireland, the world champions started strong and earned the right to negotiate their way through their pool on their own terms.
Defeat to Japan sent Joe Schmidt back to the drawing board, putting Ireland on course for a daunting last-eight clash this Saturday and forcing him to select a stronger-than-expected team for their final pool match against Samoa.
It might just have worked in his favour, even if he argued that having the extra time to recover and prepare over a weekend off was the preferred option. His team look the better for being battle-hardened.
Steve Hansen is in a very different place. His side were superb in the way they handled South Africa, and the comfortable wins over Canada and Namibia afforded him the opportunity to rotate his squad.
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But the cancellation of last Saturday’s final Pool B match against Italy means his team are in a weird sort of limbo as they approach the first hurdle of three on their way to a third successive World Cup triumph.
Where, for instance, is Brodie Retallick at with his fitness after just 30 minutes of rugby since he dislocated his shoulder on July 27?
Certainly, he could have done with the Italy game going ahead, while Hansen would likely have used the final pool game to build more experience between his combinations.
Whereas Ireland’s mid-pool dip in form meant they were engaged in a struggle right until their final match against Samoa last Saturday, their opponents hammered Canada and Namibia with their eyes closed before getting a surprise weekend off. Not that they’re outwardly concerned.
“That’s our job, to get right for a game like this,” flanker Sam Cane shrugged yesterday. “Obviously, there’s no lack of motivation.
“Not having a game at the weekend, yeah we were disappointed to start with but we put in some serious work on Friday, similar to the loads we’d put in Fukuoka and mentally we’re all in a good spot.
“We’re actually fizzing to play rugby alone, make that a play-off game – we’re right where we want to be. We’re in a good spot.”
In the wake of the opening-round win over Scotland, Schmidt was asked to consider the benefits of topping the pool.
Without hesitation, he pointed to the extra day’s preparation the winners of Pool A were afforded before considering who they might face.
They lost control of that destiny six days later and Japan’s win over Scotland means they are facing a seven-day turnaround, with yesterday’s travel from Fukuoka to Tokyo another factor to consider.
Hansen, meanwhile, has been able to rotate his squad through a curtailed Rugby Championship and into a peak in Japan.
Normally, one of these two teams is at the end of a long season when they meet and under Schmidt all four clashes have been in November.
“They’ll probably be a little bit fresher, they’ve been looked after better this year, but they will be, I’m sure, top-class,” Johnny Sexton said.
“We’re expecting them to bring their best. But it will be very special if we can get the win because often in a November series they’re tired, they’ve got holidays coming up and maybe they’ve had a little bit of an excuse.
“But this week they’ll be throwing their best at it out there.”
Sexton is one of those who has got better with games during this tournament, just as he did during the 2017 Lions tour.
Of course, in that series the first game was New Zealand’s best and they’ll back themselves to get to the right pitch physically and emotionally.
Although he made sure to express his sympathies to those who lost loved ones and property as a result of Hagibis, Hansen was putting a positive spin on his side’s unexpected weekend off.
“Having a week off is not a bad thing, we’re quite excited by that fact. It’s allowed us to work really hard on Friday, our GPS numbers were equivalent or just above what a Test match would be,” he said.
“We don’t feel like we’ve lost an opportunity to get ourselves where we need to be and the exciting part is we had Saturday locked up because of the storm.”
For all that they hit the numbers, it seems impossible to imagine they were able to put the same pressure on players as they’d experience playing in a must-win game.
The All Blacks are used to that feeling, but it’s been a while. Ireland will hope to see a bit of rust in the opening stages on Saturday.
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