In a few hours, the New Zealand and Ireland teams will be announced from their respective hotels in Tokyo.
Assuming there have been no injuries during training, there shouldn’t be any major surprises in the All Blacks’ 23.
In the back line it will likely be players who were involved in the match against South Africa at the start of the tournament. Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece and George Bridge will form the back three, with a starting midfield of Anton Leinert-Brown and Sonny Bill Williams. Richie Mo’unga and Aaron Smith will continue their partnership behind the forwards.
I’m not certain who will come off the bench and when. My best guess is Ryan Crotty will come on for SBW at some point – ideally for Steve Hansen and his team, the later the better, assuming SBW is playing at his peak ability. It is a well drilled, experienced Irish forward pack and SBW’s presence close to the action will be vital. The Irish will keep the ball close to the pack, with the odd foray forward through box kicks and positioning kicks that will seek to test Reece and Bridge.
Two other backs will be named on the bench. My guess here is that Hansen will opt for experience, and in that regard, Ben Smith and TJ Perenara will get the nod. That said, there’s an outside chance that Jordie Barrett and/or Brad Weber may make an appearance because they have both shown their abilities, albeit against weaker teams, and their impact may be more critical in the later stages of the match, depending on the score.
Expect to see Joe Moody, Dane Coles and Nepo Laulala starting up front again, with Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick back together behind them. Sam Cane and Ardie Savea will make up the back three with skipper Kieran Read. Codie Taylor, Ofa Tuungafasi and Angus Ta’avao will come on at some point to ably replace the front row, with Scott Barrett likely to come on replacing Brodie Retallick. Because of his versatility and form, Shannon Frizell will be used later in the match assuming no earlier injuries occur.
The forecast at this point is for rain earlier in the day, but by evening it should have stopped.
There has been a vociferous Irish presence in the stadiums so far. The singing and cheers in fact suggest that twice as many Irish supporters are present. Although they are likely to be outnumbered by All Blacks supporters, including thousands of Japanese spectators, I suspect their singing will make it feel like a home match for the Ireland team.
So, how will it go? We can anticipate the All Blacks playing the game at pace, testing the Irish pack’s ability to move around the field continuously, non-stop for 80 minutes. The All Blacks’ back line is full of players in top form, and all of whom can make a game-changing play. If they all perform to their potential it could be a high-scoring game for the All Blacks.
But if Ireland put pressure on the All Blacks early on, and put some quick points on the board, it will be a different game. And if Ireland vary their play and make much greater use of their back three than what we’ve seen so far in Japan, then – along with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray’s play-making abilities – we may well see an Irish victory.
Most people don’t expect to see an Irish victory. But under the right conditions it may well happen. That is why the All Blacks must start the match with the right attitude – the sort of attitude we’ve seen in the past – like when they played Ireland soon after their defeat to the Irish in Chicago, and when they beat Australia after having been out-played in Perth a few days earlier.
It will be a fascinating match to watch – two competing styles, and the teams running onto the pitch with different types of preparation over the past few weeks. The All Blacks have had plenty of time to prepare for the battle, but the Irish are more match-ready – and have benefitted from their loss to Japan.
A big factor in the final result, however, may well be the fitness and freshness of the All Blacks compared to an Ireland team that has had to dig deep in their games.
It may well be the play-making ability of any one of the All Blacks – think Barrett, Mo’unga, Reece and Bridge – in the final quarter of the match that will ultimately make the difference.