Classy backs give All Blacks winning edge

Despite losing two of their last three games against Ireland, the brilliant All Black backs should pave the way to a Rugby World Cup quarterfinal victory over the Irish in Japan on Saturday night.

However, Ireland’s uncompromising forwards and Jonathan Sexton’s goal-kicking boot remain a threat should the defending champions lack discipline.

The greatest fear for all eight quarter-finalists is a red card by referees who have been ordered to clamp down hard on head high tackles.

However it’s a pity they don’t police the offside rule against some teams that favour a rush defence that strangles enterprising back attack. Consequently, one of Richie Mo’unga’s smartest ploys is the cross kick or kick pass that wings Sevu Reece and George Bridge have converted into tries.

It was a shame Typhoon Hagibis forced the cancellation of the All Blacks match against Italy that robbed Brodie Retallick and Jack Goodhue of valuable game time following long injury-enforced breaks. But it is doubtful whether Goodhue would have got a start anyway given the strong form of midfielders Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams.

Fortunately locks Scott Barrett and Sam Whitelock have done a splendid job during Retallick’s absence. In fact, Barrett is one of the most improved players in the squad and has fully justified his starting spot.

So too has dynamic Ardie Savea whose blindside flanker presence gives the pack quicker ball from the breakdown and a greater attacking threat when he roams wide and sprints like a wing.

That comes at the cost of losing lineout height although captain Kieran Read remains a spring-heeled leaper who offers his locks strong support.

However Ireland’s front row could severely test the All Blacks muscle and technique and the Connor Murray/ Sexton halves combination has troubled New Zealand in the past.

Presumably swift passing Aaron Smith will start in the No 9 jersey ahead of the aggressive PJ Perenara and the speedy  Brad Webber who has fully justified his selection as the third halfback.

With Mo’unga excelling at No 10 and the centres gelling nicely, Beauden Barrett is relishing the extra space afforded him at fullback where his pace is the ace that threatens the best defences.

The weather should be a major factor with the All Blacks wanting a firm track and not the humidity that has made the slippery ball so hard to handle.

Meanwhile, having scored  seven tries in hammering Samoa 47-5, England will fancy their chances against an Australian team that hasn’t played to their potential thus far.

The English have big, strong forwards and first-five George Ford has ignited a backline that has size and pace.

As Six Nations champions, Warren Gatland’s Wales will fancy their chances against France although many-a-team has learned to their cost that the French should never be under-estimated no matter their previous form.

Certainly South Africa won’t take Japan lightly knowing they lost to them in pool play to set alight the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

To their credit, the Springboks bounced back and only lost their semi-final to New Zealand 20-18 before the champions beat the Wallabies 34-17 in the final.

However, having beaten Ireland for starters this time and cementing their playoff place by comfortably accounting for Scotland, Japan are playing exciting rugby before their delirious fans.

Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer.