Three talking points ahead of Ireland's game with Australia

David Pocock is a force of nature and Ireland will need to keep the ball off the deck as much as possible to negate his influence, writes Donal Lenihan.
Three talking points ahead of Ireland's game with Australia

Mental more than physical edge required for this one

One wonders where Ireland are physically after that gruelling Test against New Zealand last Saturday.

Given that most of the preparatory work this week was conducted in meeting rooms and video analysis suites at Carton House, there is no reason why the energy levels of the 11 starting players who will be required to front up once again against Australia today won’t have been sufficiently replenished.

That is why I expect that the winning and losing of this game will come down to mental rather than physical sharpness.

For a variety of reasons New Zealand have dominated the thought process of the entire Irish set-up for the last month.

After making history in Chicago and emptying the tank in attempting to replicate that victory in Dublin last Saturday you wonder, having beaten Australia in the corresponding fixture last year, if Ireland are as psychologically prepared to go and empty the well once again.

If not, then they will be beaten.

Michael Cheika has clearly prioritised this fixture in the same way that Joe Schmidt poured his heart and soul into designing a blueprint to down the All Blacks.

Having beaten Scotland by a single point at Murrayfield two weeks ago, Cheika made 10 changes to his side and still managed to beat France in Paris with a largely second choice starting side.

On the receiving end of three sizeable defeats to New Zealand since August, Ireland’s win in Chicago has spooked the Wallaby camp and put them on notice. They know they will have to be at their very best to beat Ireland and have prepared accordingly.

In this fixture two years ago they were very slow out of the blocks, allowing Ireland build up a 17-point lead within 15 minutes. They worked their way back into the contest to leave Ireland hanging on at the death before winning by three. They were also very hesitant in the opening quarter of their last two clashes, against a much improved Scottish side and France outfit who raced into an eight-point lead in as many minutes.

Cheika will be very conscious of the fact that Ireland have mastered the art of hitting the ground running.

They built up a 22-point lead against New Zealand in Chicago, something no other side in recent history has even come near to achieving.

Therefore he will be going all out to sow a seed of doubt in the heads of the Irish players by building an early lead.

If the collective mindset is anywhere short of where is was for those epic clashes against New Zealand, Ireland will be on the back foot from the off.

A back row battle to savour

There is much debate in the modern game as to what constitutes the ideal balance in the back row.

Traditionally you had a fetcher on the deck and continuity player in your No. 7, a lineout ball winner and scrum technician at No. 8 and a ball carrying, big hitting, destroyer occupying the No. 6 jersey. It helped if he could also contribute at lineout time.

That has changed with different sides tweaking its combination, depending on the way they want to play and the opposition. Australia were the first to play two out and out No. 7s with the incomparable David Pocock and Michael Hooper combining magnificently to propel the Wallabies all the way to the World Cup final last year.

Pocock is a force of nature and Ireland will need to keep the ball off the deck as much as possible to negate his influence. His work, in tandem with Hooper, generates multiple turnovers in every game and Australia look to counter attack off those every time. With defences usually caught out of alignment off those turnovers, they will attack space and exploit any mismatch.

Ireland, on the other hand, have a back row of frightening ball-carriers in Sean O Brien (if he plays) and CJ Stander with Jamie Heaslip offering subtlety and excellent decision making from No. 8. To date that unit have failed to make it past the 22-minute mark in the two Tests they have started and therefore we are still waiting to see the devastation they might wreak over an hour of combined assault.

Like New Zealand, the key to the Australian game is quick ball. Despite their poor form in the Rugby Championship, they still have a quality backline capable of picking holes in even the most organised defences. What Ireland need to do today is force Hooper and Pocock into a defensive mode where they spend the majority of time being sucked into contact, having to halt the bullocking runs of O’Brien and Stander.

Once you get them on the ground in the tackle, make sure they are pinned in and not allowed roam. The discovery of Sam Arnold in the second row has added an improved physical edge to the Wallaby front five and that has offered more freedom to their rampaging loose forwards.

The loss of another second row find in Adam Coleman through injury will be compensated for by the inclusion of the vastly underrated Dean Mumm in the back row. He contributes far more than Lopeti Timani, who was largely ineffective against Scotland. Working in tandem with Pocock and Hooper, Mumm will add hugely to what promises to be a fascinating contest between two stellar back rows of diverse skill sets. Whoever comes out on top will go a long way towards deciding this game.

Wallaby attacking threat must be nullified

Despite their recent travails in the Rugby Championship, Australia have bounced back after shifting some pretty severe criticism at home. This tour has proved somewhat cathartic and with six wins in their last eight outings, the confidence and swagger that was always part and parcel of the Wallabies since winning the World Cup in 1991 has started to resurface.

One of the reasons for this is the return to form of star scrum-half Will Genia. Once rated as the best in class in the game, Genia lost his way for a few seasons but is now back playing superb rugby. He is the one who dictates the pace of their game and, working in tandem with Bernard Foley, pulls the strings for the Wallabies. Ireland need to close him down, just like they managed to do against New Zealand’s Aaron Smith.

Australia will attack the Irish 10/12 channel where the lack of game-time, familiarity and understanding between Paddy Jackson and Garry Ringrose, playing out of position, leave Ireland somewhat vulnerable.

On this tour, the Wallabies have been brilliantly effective with power plays off lineouts — they scored three tries against Wales from that platform — and will look to expose any defensive frailties in Ireland’s midfield. Robbie Henshaw is a huge loss from that perspective and if Jared Payne’s injury scare forces him to miss out too, Ireland look very vulnerable.

Dropped during the Rugby Championship, centre Tevita Kuridrani is on a mission of atonement, scoring in all three tour wins to date against Wales, Scotland and France. Alongside him, less familiar faces in Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty have also made their mark while the aerial skills of Israel Folau continue to impress. Ireland will need to have their kicking game spot-on for him not to flourish.

The Wallabies remain fallible in the scrum and the best way for Ireland to blunt their threat with ball in hand is to attack their set-piece. For Ireland to win they need to absorb the debilitating loss of Sexton and Henshaw and prove to themselves that the depth Joe Schmidt craves is good and ready.

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