Rugby World Cup: George tells England to relish Fiji clash
It is a long, long time since New Zealand entered the World Cup knockout stages as such outsiders. The bookmakers mark the All Blacks down as fourth favourites out of the eight remaining teams which is a reflection both of the exceptional quality of the three nations above them – Ireland, France and South Africa – but also of their own unfamiliar vulnerability.
As World Cup cycles go, this has been the worst in New Zealand history with their opening-night defeat to France their 11th loss since the last World Cup. All things are relative – they have won 31 Tests in that period too – but the knocks have removed some of the sheen from the brand that likes to market itself as the most successful in international sport.
The fact that Ireland inflicted three of those defeats – two of them in New Zealand – casts the All Blacks as unlikely underdogs on tomorrow night in Paris. Ian Foster, the New Zealand coach, insists Ireland will face a better All Blacks side than 16 months ago – partly as a result of the “uppercut” Andy Farrell’s side landed on them.
“We got smacked and that’s OK – we took our medicine,” said Foster. “We’ve been rebuilding nicely since then so I like where we’re at. A little bit of adversity never hurt anyone if you use it well.
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“The key to any path you walk on is you just own your errors and own your mistakes and get on with it. I believe we’ve done that. We lost a few games but it doesn’t change where we are right now, and we’re ready.”
New Zealand can certainly still score points – putting 96 on Italy in a pool stage demolition underlined their undiminished try-scoring potency. But former All Blacks stand-off Andrew Mehrtens says that evidence was tainted by the Azzurri’s no-show.
“It’s hard to judge because Italy were poor,” said Mehrtens.” Some of that was the All Blacks making Italy look poor but I don’t think the All Blacks would have taken much out of that game.” More relevant would seem to be their most recent games against A-list opposition – a record defeat to the Springboks in their final World Cup warm-up match when they were comprehensively overpowered and the 27-13 loss to France in Paris which ultimately diverted them into Ireland’s path.
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This will, however, be New Zealand’s 10th World Cup quarter-final and they have only lost one before. On that occasion, in 2007, France exposed their lack of a Plan B in Cardiff in a defeat many traumatised Kiwis preferred to blame on the refereeing of Wayne Barnes.
The Englishman, coincidentally, is the man in the middle again this weekend so they have a ready-made excuse if it does all go wrong again. Foster, whose chequered tenure will end when his side go out of this tournament, is crossing his fingers that whatever the bookies may think it won’t.
“We love these big occasions – there’s no tomorrow to them. It just narrows down the focus, so keeping it simple like that is key for us,” he said. “Everyone hopes they can go well in the play-offs. I guess we know that we can and we have and we’ve got to rely on that.”
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