BRENDAN O'BRIEN: World-weary Wallabies watching Ireland with envy

Eddie Jones was the one Australian everyone wanted to hear from after Ireland dispensed with his England side so seamlessly at Twickenham last week, but it would have been interesting to mine the thoughts of his compatriot Michael Cheika, who was among the 82,062 souls looking on from the stands, writes Brendan O’Brien.

What must he have thought as he soaked up the Irish effort?

Jonathan Sexton has already waxed lyrical this week about the edge that the IRFU’s player welfare system offers Joe Schmidt’s side. He has no doubt the extra duties England’s players have clocked up in the wake of a Lions tour played a major part in allowing Ireland secure a Grand Slam.

Cheika would dearly love to have that control over his players. If Ireland are a rare example of a nation that manages to extricate the very best from their very best, then the Aussies are more typical of most of the other tier one powers who struggle to come up with a system that allows them to reach their potential.

Cheika wasn’t in Europe just to watch an Irish side that he will face three times back home this summer. It has been reported this week that he met with Leicester Tigers hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau who has seemingly agreed to return home and feature in the three-Test series against the Six Nations champions.

Far more encouraging will be the sight next week of David Pocock wearing the Brumbies shirt again, against the Waratahs. The ‘jackal’ extraordinaire took a break from rugby last year, spending time in South Africa doing conservation work and studying in Harvard. He played a bit in Japan, too.

A knee injury has sidelined him through the opening month of the Super Rugby season, but the prospect of Pocock and Michael Hooper contesting rucks against Ireland in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney this June represents a very different challenge to the disjointed effort offered by England last Saturday.

With Australia, though, there is always the impression of one step forward and two back. Like South Africa, they have been hamstrung by an inability to corral their best players into the green and gold because of the lure of mega-money contracts up north, their own domestic difficulties, and the steady trickle of cases whereby players of world-class talent have fallen out of the system.

Quade Cooper is the latest. Again. A sublime talent, Cooper has been told by Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn — once of Leinster — that he has no place in his plans so the playmaker has decided to eschew the usual path to Europe and knuckle down with Brisbane club side Souths in the hope he can find a path back to Super Rugby and the Wallabies.

The thought of Cooper, a man of exceptional talent who has played over 180 times for the Reds and Australia, playing his rugby in the Queensland Premier League against the likes of Sunnybank and Brothers at the Chipsy Wood Oval, is symbolic of the wave of highs and lows surfed by the Wallabies. Good enough to see off the All Blacks in their last Rugby Championship game back in October, they followed that up with a 24-point defeat to Jones’ England in London and a woeful 29-point reversal at the hands of the Scots in Edinburgh. England, by the by, took the series 3-0 when they went Down Under in 2016. Scotland beat them in Sydney last year.

Ireland are the one team Cheika’s Australia have yet to face and beat — played two, lost two — and the debate on these shores is what sort of squad we should be sending over there.

Should Jonathan Sexton be stood down? Should Conor Murray? For all of Schmidt’s efforts to deepen his reserves this past three seasons or so, out-half and scrum-half remain the most obvious points of weakness beyond the front line. Joey Carbery has been solid when called upon, but needs time. Same goes for Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath.

It’s hard to see Schmidt giving his half-backs the summer off. Impossible, actually. The likelihood is both will travel and that the Kiwi coach will seek to balance the needs of such future-proofing against the carrot that would be a first defeat of the Wallabies on Australian soil since the days of the Ward/Campbell controversy in 1979. A series win would be even better, of course.

WHATEVER the tactics this summer, Schmidt’s strategy is working. Winning a Grand Slam while ushering so much new talent into the ranks made for a neat trick and it sets the squad up nicely for the World Cup in Japan, by which time the majority of those who featured of late will be thoroughly embedded.

Accepted wisdom has it that your starting XV needs to be pushing a combined cap count of 700 in order to harbour realistic designs on the Webb Ellis trophy. The Ireland side that started in Twickenham six days ago totalled 653 and there are 11 full-blooded Tests and a few warm-ups to play before that.

All the pieces are fitting. The likes of Cheika must be green with envy.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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