1 The psychological battle
Australia’s recent efforts to better a visiting side in a three-test series have been pretty mixed. When the Lions visited here five years ago, the Wallabies were deemed to be in the driving seat and firmly in control having levelled the series in the second test.
The controversy surrounding the omission of Brian O’Driscoll for the decider was deemed to have played into Wallaby hands and yet they were walloped 16-41.
The following season Australia beat a very poor French squad in all three tests before being humiliated 3-0 by arch rivals England in 2016. Tellingly, when the pressure was on them, for different reasons, going into those final tests against the Lions and England, they imploded.
In times past, Australia won tight internationals through sheer self-belief and belligerence. That is a quality one can readily identify across all sports in the country but not currently with this Wallaby group. When the pressure comes on, they have tended to crack.
On the flip side you just knew that Ireland, after a disappointing showing in the tour opener in Brisbane, would deliver when the chips were down to keep the series alive in Melbourne. Their body language in the days leading into that game reeked of a team hurting and ready to deliver.
Both teams have had their moments in this finely poised series but Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt are both aware that Ireland, having dominated for long periods, should have won last week by a far wider margin than five points.
That Ireland let the Wallabies back into the game over the closing 10 minutes is a concern for Schmidt but equally for Cheika in that his side were incapable of pouncing on Ireland’s vulnerability when reduced to six forwards with Jack McGrath on a yellow card and Joey Carbery on for Devin Toner.
The question now is who is in a better position to kick on and close out the series? Ireland were in this position in South Africa two years ago but let things slip, both physically and mentally, and missed a golden opportunity. With a Grand Slam already delivered this season, this group will be keen to finish a monumental year on a massive high. Ireland will be massively motivated to see this one through but Australia’s wide attacking game has danger all over it.
2 Close out attacking opportunities
Despite an impressive return of 13 wins in their last 14 internationals, the predictable nature of Ireland’s attacking game remains a challenge. Many teams know what is coming when they play Ireland but few, in recent times, have been able to cope. Yet, the doubt remains that Ireland’s predictably will eventually come back to haunt them.
Apart altogether from the result, the biggest positive from the performance last weekend was Ireland’s ability to break down the famed Wallaby defence through a variety of different means.
Keith Earls, James Ryan, and Tadhg Furlong all made great line breaks that were one pass away from delivering a try-scoring opportunity. Having been held try-less in the opening test, to score two last time out was a big improvement but, in reality, there should have been more.
Ireland’s attacking stats from the game offer a clear insight that things are heading in the right direction from an attacking perspective. Ireland made an impressive eight line breaks, beat 34 Wallaby defenders and completed five offloads. Shorn of quality possession, Australia only made a single line break, beat 18 defenders and made only one more offload than Ireland.
One has to admire Schmidt’s determination to expose all his squad on this tour to game time, despite the fact that by constantly altering his starting side he is in danger of losing fluidity. By making nine changes for the second test and a further five to the side that won last weekend — three of those necessitated by injuries to Andrew Conway, Dan Leavy and Gary Ringrose while Iain Henderson remains unavailable — he is replicating exactly what is likely to happen at a World Cup.
Regardless of the personnel on board, Schmidt demands high standards and continued improvement regardless of circumstances. With Ringrose ruled out, the same midfield and back three combinations that failed to fire at the Suncorp Stadium are now offered a second chance. The fact that Johnny Sexton is there from the outset this time should help matters.
In the first test, Australia read Ireland’s loop plays far too easily and rarely bought the dummy. As a result, the recipient of the pass was smashed in the tackle. With Sexton restored to out-half last weekend and playing flat on the gain line, the Wallaby defence had more challenging decisions to make and didn’t always make the correct read, hence those encouraging line breaks.
To win the series, Ireland will have to match last Saturday’s haul of two tries at the very least, given that Australia have scored five in the series to date. Of even greater importance, now that Ireland have discovered a way to get in behind the Wallaby defensive wall, those precious line breaks need to be finished off.
3 Back row tinkering
At this stage, both teams know each other far better than was the case a couple of weeks ago. Back then Australia’s dominance of the breakdown set the tone for a winning performance. Ireland took that lesson on board to come back stronger and reverse that trend to level the series. So what happens now?
Both sides have been forced into tweaking their respective back rows but for different reasons. Peter O’Mahony was outstanding last time out but now finds himself in unfamiliar territory, starting at open side for the first time in his international career, against two out and out specialists in the art. With Dan Leavy injured and Jordi Murphy having struggled there in the first test, Schmidt has gambled somewhat.
Cheika has finally conceded that Australia badly needs a lineout presence in the back row along with a bigger ball-carrying threat. Caleb Timu was unable to bridge the gap from Super rugby to the test arena in his first two caps where his carrying was ineffective. He now pays the price with Lukhan Tui, starting a test for the first time, having impressed off the bench.
Last week Ireland overturned the Wallaby dominance at the breakdown by committing more numbers and by being far more ruthless and physical in the cleanout. Can they repeat that with two positional switches with O’Mahony at No 7 and CJ Stander on the blind side with Jack Conan introduced at No 8? This combination has never started together before and will quickly have to find an understanding in order to keep the Hooper-Pocock pairing from generating the turnovers their attack thrive on.
Australia also have injury issues and Will Genia is a big loss at scrum-half. However, it does bring a positive in that his replacement Nick Phipps now makes it an all-Waratahs combination at No’s 9, 10 and 12 along with Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale. That could work in their favour.
This series is delicately balanced but, had Ireland been in a position to name an unchanged team from last weekend, I would have fancied them to win with room to spare. Yet these enforced changes is exactly what Schmidt wants this group to experience and deal with.
Despite the loss of some key personnel, if Ireland can deal with breakdown examination as successfully as last week, then a historic test series win is well within their compass.