Easterby says Ireland must be at their best to push New Zealand all the way
Forwards’ coach believes Ireland’s record shows they are capable of standing toe-to-toe
Ireland’s players take part in a training session at the Arcs Urayasu Park in Urayasu in preparation for the quarater-final against New Zealand. Photograph: Anne Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty
Under Joe Schmidt’s watch, Ireland have shared two wins apiece with New Zealand, making the Kiwi probably the most successful coach in history against the All Blacks, certainly in the professional era.
If Ireland and Schmidt have earned the respect of the back-to-back world champions like never before, those results will also have emboldened Ireland’s belief they can cause one of the great World Cup upsets, even if it would have been a much bigger surprise in the past.
Schmidt’s assistant, and Ireland’s forwards coach, Simon Easterby played against the All Blacks five times as a player, three times with Ireland and twice with the Lions. He was on the losing end each time, by an average margin of almost 22 points.
As Ireland’s forwards’ coach since the start of the 2014-15 season, he thus missed the All Blacks’ feat of escapology in November 2013, and has been on the winning side in two of three meetings.
“As a team we were often gallant losers in my time as a player; we pushed teams close every now and then. We had the odd maybe two- or three- or four -game winning streak against the top sides and then maybe we’d fall over.
“But I think the consistency that Joe has brought over the last five or six seasons and the confidence he has brought – not just to beat the likes of the All Blacks but to go to South Africa, to go to Australia and win a series, to win championships, to win a Grand Slam – the confidence that the group has with the game plan, the confidence that they have in Andy’s defence, I think there is a combination of different things that have come together.
“A lot of them all have to come together at the same time, and sometimes when you don’t quite get everything right then sometimes we’re not good enough. So we have to be at our best, or close to our best, on Saturday and if we are then we’ll push them all the way.
“I think they know that but we also have to be wary of the threats that they bring, and Joe is across all of that detail, across our mindset and our understanding of what it takes to beat a time like the All Blacks. That filters through the group as we go through the week and the confidence that we gain has been shown in a couple of performances that we’ve had against them.”
Easterby played in 65 Tests for Ireland, and has been their forwards’ coach for 65 as well; yet he agreed that the sheer magnitude of this one probably eclipses all of them.
“What was it, ’95 that Ireland last played the All Blacks in a World Cup and Gary Halpin scored, didn’t he?” recalled Easterby with a chuckle of Ireland’s only previous World Cup meeting with the All Blacks in Johannesburg, when the Irish tighthead scored the game’s first try in and the euphoria of the moment, gave his opponents the finger. New Zealand won 43-19.
“Was it his only try?” Easterby suggested, and indeed in 10 Tests it was Halpin’s only touchdown.
This quarter-final “was potentially on the horizon” said Easterby, who added: “They have been the number one side, maybe not all by name but certainly over the last few seasons they have been the consistently the team to beat. You know that you’re always in a hell of a game and to beat them you’ve got to be at your best.
“That provokes excitement, it provokes a little bit of anxiety. You’ve got to get nearly everything right and I think that drives this group.
“They’re driven by a number of things but the challenge and the demands they put on themselves shows that we can raise our game for the likes of New Zealand, South Africa, England in Twickenham, two Test wins in Australia, those types of challenges have often been met by this team and this Saturday is no different.”
Ireland’s lineout, save for a couple of costly blips against Japan and one immaterial one against Russia, has been fairly sound, securing possession 51 times off 54 throws. But the All Blacks are sure to put intense pressure on it this weekend.
“New Zealand are a big threat and I think that we can also have an impact on their set-piece. As much as it’s vital that we get on the front foot and give ourselves the opportunity to win front foot ball at scrum and lineout, the pressure will clearly come on at times. But we have the ability to put the pressure on them as well.”
The expectation is that Brodie Retallick will be reunited with Sam Whitelock in the only World Cup-winning combination from four years ago. For the upwardly mobile James Ryan-Iain Henderson partnership, this represents the ultimate challenge. But it’s one that, with Henderson calling the lineouts and reproducing his best form, they look ready for.
“James in particular, just over two years ago he was making his debut and he’s certainly not disappointed anyone, I don’t think, in his performances. It’s been no surprise to us. It might have come as a surprise to some people. I think he was destined to play at this level and he just looks comfortable.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself, he works incredibly hard as does Iain. Iain is past 50 caps now, he’s a leader in the group in terms of how he plays the game, his actions. I think that partnership has gone from strength to strength and it’s gone really well so far.
“They’re going to be up against, potentially one of the best partnerships the All Blacks have had in a long time in those two guys, that again is another one of those intriguing battles and challenges that will continue through the game.”
One of many indeed.