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View from New Zealand: All Blacks have a deep respect for Ireland – but not a lot of love

New Zealand is a country unsure of where it is going but this weekend, with a general election and a Rugby World Cup clash with Ireland, it hopes for signs of a positive direction of travel

There is a general election in New Zealand the day before the All Blacks play their Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Ireland.

An election that has become increasingly difficult to predict as New Zealanders have to pick from a mediocre crew of leaders, none of whom inspire confidence or appear to have a bold vision for the country.

New Zealand’s future is therefore uncertain: no one quite knows where the country is heading, or what it wants to be or where on earth its charismatic leaders of the past have slunk off to.

Most people seem to be sick of the incumbents, but they don’t have a lot of faith that voting for the other lot will stop New Zealand sliding down the OECD tables in everything from numeracy and literacy to healthcare and happiness.


New Zealand has lost a lot of direction and a little bit of hope, and no one is quite sure whether the All Blacks are partly the cause or a symptom of this.

The fortunes of the team in the last four years certainly reflect those of the country.,

They too don’t seem like they know who they are any more or what they want to be.

But New Zealand will wake up on the morning of the quarter-final (it kicks off at 8am on Sunday, October 16th there) possibly with a new government and – maybe – a heightened optimism that could possibly instil the All Blacks with the confidence they have been lacking since New Zealand shut its doors to everyone in March 2020 because of Covid, and slowly turned itself mad in the process.

It’s crazy to think that in the four years before Covid hit, the All Blacks were definitively the senior partner in their rugby relationship with Ireland. The axis tilted a little with Ireland’s historic first win in Chicago 2016, and then a little more when they won on home soil for the first time in 2018.

New Zealanders, however, were more of the view that those victories were aberrations rather than a fundamental shifting of the tectonic plates.

When it really mattered and when everything was on the line as it was in the 2019 World Cup quarter-final, the All Blacks blew Ireland off the park.

A game that was supposed to go down to the wire and shred the nerves of both countries was over by half-time when Ireland simply had no answer to the blitz they faced.

Normal service had resumed, it seemed, only for the world to be flipped upside down when Ireland won in Dublin in 2021 and then in the three-test series the following year in New Zealand.

That was the undeniable evidence that they had taken the mantle as the world’s best rugby team and confirmation that the All Blacks had been usurped as the standard setters and were chasing Ireland, trying to work out how to close the skills gap and how to build a team with similar cohesion and innate understanding of how they were trying to play.

Ireland were everything in that series that the All Blacks used to be: composed, driven and capable of executing the basics with such precision and intensity as to make the game look elegant and simple.

That series loss was defining for the All Blacks and the country as it served as an all-encompassing proof that both had come out of Covid miles behind where they imagined they would.

For the All Blacks, it led to two assistant coaches being fired, former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt being promoted to oversee the attack and a total reset on just about everything they were doing.

A handful of players that played in that last test in Wellington have been discarded and the All Blacks match day 23 for the quarter-final will have five new faces in it, not to mention all three Barrett brothers in different positions to the ones in which they started last year.

“Very much so, I reckon,” said All Blacks coach Ian Foster this week when he was asked if that series last year was the pivotal moment in redirecting him and his All Blacks.

“I don’t think we got surprised in that series from what we were dealt but we realised that there were a couple of areas where our benchmark wasn’t high enough.

“We realised that we had to make a bit of a step shift in a couple of areas to get what we needed to.

“You can’t give top teams a couple of lineout drive tries against you, for example, and expect to come out and beat them consistently. We had to work hard in a couple of areas – we still are – that obviously being one.”

There’s a mixed body of evidence about how much the All Blacks have transformed since they pressed reset.

No one disputes they have improved – toughened up and built a better scrum and a more competitive lineout.

They are more clinical at the breakdown, too, and they understand better that physical domination leads to them being able to instigate their preferred attacking patterns.

And when it has all worked, as it did in the Rugby Championship earlier this year and then against Namibia, Italy and Uruguay, the All Blacks have shown they can be lethal.

But it’s such a battle for them to get it all to work – to win that physical confrontation to create the time and space they need for their wondrous pass-and-catch to flourish.

No one in New Zealand is sure whether Ireland will be blown away like Argentina, South Africa, Australia and Italy have been this year, or whether the All Blacks will implode as they did against France, when they couldn’t handle the relentless power of the hosts.

There’s maybe a couple of factors, though, swinging a nation more towards hope than despair.

The All Blacks, with one glaring exception, have a habit of exploding into life at the quarter-final stage of a World Cup.

They need the pressure of the occasion to get the best out of themselves and after three easy pool round romps, they will be ready to shift the stick into fifth and hit Ireland at full speed.

And then there is this business of the rivalry that is brewing between the two. There’s a deep respect for Ireland – for what they have achieved in the last decade and the way they have played in this World Cup cycle – but there isn’t a lot of love.

The All Blacks haven’t forgotten Peter O’Mahony making an unfavourable comparison between current captain Sam Cane and his predecessor Richie McCaw in Dunedin last year.

There was also a verbal exchange between Johnny Sexton and Dane Coles on the touchline during that series and the Irish skipper’s antics – the constant harassment of referees and willingness to have a word on the field with his opponents – has almost certainly heightened the All Blacks’ appetite to get in his face, shut down his space and see how he copes when things don’t go his way.

And for New Zealanders, there is a growing sense that too many things haven’t gone their way for too long now and that the election and the quarter-final are a double-whammy opportunity to put a little island in the South Seas back on the world map.

Gregor Paul is the New Zealand Herald’s rugby correspondent