Two-time defending champion New Zealand cruised into a Rugby World Cup semifinal matchup against England after dismantling Ireland 46-14 on Saturday night.
Ireland had beaten the All Blacks in two of their previous three encounters heading into their quarterfinal at Tokyo Stadium, but New Zealand was simply too hot for the Irish to handle on the occasion when it mattered most.
Aaron Smith scored two first-half tries before Beauden Barrett added another to give the All Blacks a formidable halftime lead, and further scores from Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, George Bridge and Jordie Barrett kept up the momentum after the interval.
A late score from Robbie Henshaw and a penalty try belatedly got Ireland on the scoreboard, but it was nowhere near enough to stop the All Blacks from progressing to a mouth-watering semifinal against England in Yokohama on Oct. 26.
“I don’t know if you can call it a monkey on our backs, but we got reminded and reminded and reminded that we had lost to Ireland,” said New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen. “The All Blacks don’t need to know that we lost to Ireland. We know that. We remember the losses more than we remember the wins.
“Defense is 50 percent of the game, and probably 90 percent when you consider the psychological value of it. We kept our discipline, and when they carried, we got up and made our tackles, and they were punishing tackles. When you’re doing that, they start to second-guess a little bit and start losing their edge.”
Ireland kept up its dismal World Cup record of never having advanced past the quarterfinals despite having appeared in every edition of the tournament, and departing head coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best will now bow out with their ambitions unfulfilled.
“You can’t afford to give the All Blacks access points like we did,” said Schmidt, who is stepping down after six years in charge. “They’re good enough to win games without us inviting them in. I think we were a little bit flat. We had a few niggles during the week and we weren’t sure what our team would be until Thursday. I felt that we needed to get off to a good start to build momentum and confidence, and if that didn’t happen, I always felt we would be a little bit vulnerable.
“Obviously, we would have loved to get into the top four. There are a number of things this group of players has achieved, and that’s the one thing that remains elusive. We’re incredibly disappointed. Heartbroken wouldn’t be too far away from how I feel now and how the players feel now.”
New Zealand took an early lead through a Richie Mo’unga penalty, but the All Blacks really gained a foothold when Smith went over for a try in the 14th minute. New Zealand’s forwards kept up the pressure on the Irish goal line, and Smith spotted a gap to pick up the ball and dive over.
Mo’unga added the conversion to put the All Blacks eight points ahead, before Smith grabbed his second try in the 20th minute with another opportunistic finish. Mo’unga nailed the conversion from way out by the touchline, and Ireland was left with a mountain to climb with only a quarter of the game gone.
New Zealand increased its lead in the 32nd minute when a Sevu Reece tackle on Rob Kearney shook the ball loose and Mo’unga kicked it forward, and Beauden Barrett was first to reach it to touch down for the score. Referee Nigel Owens checked a replay before he was satisfied that Reece’s tackle was legal, before Mo’unga missed the conversion.
Taylor scored New Zealand’s fourth in the 48th minute, taking the ball from Kieran Read to finish off another devastating All Blacks attack. Substitute Todd then added another after Mo’unga had found Reece with a laser-guided cross-field kick.
Henshaw finally got Ireland on the scoreboard with a try in the 69th minute, but New Zealand replied in typically brilliant fashion through Bridge before a penalty try gave Ireland another score.
Jordie Barrett gave the scoreline a more emphatic slant with a final try in the 79th minute, setting the scene for next Saturday’s titanic semifinal clash against England.
“I’m looking forward to playing them,” said Hansen. “That will be a massive challenge, but I don’t think tonight is the time to think about that. Test matches are very hard work from Sunday to Saturday and you have to take a bit of time to step off the merry-go-round and relax.
“It’s a special moment, one that people in New Zealand can be proud of and one that the players can be proud of. We won’t think about England until tomorrow.”