New Zealand have been the most dangerous attacking team at this World Cup, Ireland one of the best defences.
And yet Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final in Tokyo may well be decided on the other side of the ball – whether Ireland can find a way to break down the All Blacks.
Along with England, Ireland and New Zealand have the tightest defences in the World Cup to date, so finding a way through will be essential in Saturday’s quarter-final.
That will mean a lot of preparation work for Joe Schmidt to find any cracks in the armour of the back-to-back world champions.
And while the last eight match-up was only confirmed on Sunday evening, Ireland’s preparations for the All Blacks have been a year in the making.
Video analyst Vinny Hammond explained: “As soon as the draw was made, you know the likelihood is you’re going to face New Zealand or South Africa, so for us we’ve been planning that for a year. We just wouldn’t have enough time if we got up this morning and said, ‘OK, let’s have a look at New Zealand.’
“It’s a long way out but you have to plan the way through to the final from an analysis point of view because if we were to get there, you only have a week to prep and you have to have that done. It’s not realistic to get that done in the week of the game.”
Schmidt has enjoyed plenty of success against the All Blacks, overseeing Ireland’s first-ever victory against New Zealand, and then following that up with a maiden win over them in Dublin.
Steve Hansen has already started the mind games, joking about how New Zealand will try to bait Schmidt as he puts together a game plan to break them down.
“We know that Joe does a lot of study,” said Hansen. “That can be a strength and a weakness. I might be able to set him up. Ireland are pretty set in how they play.”
As a tactic, trying to set up Schmidt would seem to be ambitious, to say the least. To do so while talking about it openly in press conferences is probably a giveaway that New Zealand will not actually be looking to use the Ireland coach’s homework against him.
Ireland have spent this week studying Schmidt’s plans, with Johnny Sexton confident that if Ireland can execute those plays, they will have a chance against the world champions.
He said: “I’m sure he will have something different for New Zealand. Off set-piece, off phase play, things we have been holding back a little bit but we have had to make sure we prepared well for Scotland and Japan.
“The great confidence is that everything we time we take that game plan and execute it to the best of our ability, we often come out on the right side of the scoreboard.”
It’s easy to see why Sexton would take so much confidence. In many ways he is Schmidt’s conduit on the pitch, knowing every move – be it from set-piece or phase play – inside out.
Schmidt’s playbook sounds like something from American football, where players have to learn every route to run, every block to make, and every line to cut.
Rugby is more spontaneous than that, but Schmidt has shown that you can always implement pre-planned moves that punish the opposition’s defensive structure.
To do that, you need a general on the pitch. That is where Sexton fits in.
Future hall of fame quarterback Peyton Manning was often described as an extra coach on the pitch, such was his understanding of opposition defences.
In a different sport, Sexton fulfils a similar role. He ensures everyone is in position, and when he sees that something might be on, he is the person who makes the call to employ a strike move.
The 2019 Guinness Six Nations gave us the latest example of Schmidt’s mastery of set-plays when Jacob Stockdale was put in for a try against Scotland.
That score came from a lineout move, one phase and then Sexton cutting inside Peter O’Mahony’s charge and sending Stockdale clean through.
A year earlier at Twickenham it was England conceding off a lineout, Tadhg Furlong serving as the pivot to put Bundee Aki through before CJ Stander got over the line.
That move was one that Schmidt had tried three years previous against England, using the threat of the Sexton wraparound to catch out the opposition defence. In 2015 it did not quite work, but in the Grand Slam clincher, it worked a charm.
That is the beauty of what Schmidt does. He had hit on a move that he knew had the potential to work, but waited three years before trying it again. Hansen might joke about setting his opposite number up, but with all the research in the world, it would be tough to guess at what Schmidt might pull out of the hat on Saturday.
The video above shows one of the earliest strike moves he employed to put Andrew Trimble over in Paris. Again it came from a lineout a fair distance from the line, allowing Ireland to exploit the space in behind after Brian O’Driscoll’s initial carry.
The All Blacks have also seen what Schmidt can dream up first hand. While Stockdale’s try at the Aviva Stadium last November was in large part thanks to his finishing ability and raw speed, it also came from a planned switch after a ruck where Sexton spotted space on the left and released his winger.
Even at this World Cup Sexton delved into Schmidt’s box of tricks for Rob Kearney’s opening try against Russia. If Schmidt has a move in the locker for Russia in the pools, you can be sure there are plenty more in store for the All Blacks.
The fact that Ireland’s driving lineout is also firing will help. Rory Best has already got two tries to his name from mauls, and any misdirection will function better when the threat of the drive is greater.
What New Zealand might have shown to Schmidt to try to trap him is unclear. What is certain is that the Ireland coach will have plans in mind to break down the best defence in the tournament.