How Ireland can blunt Hooper’s impact

Michael Hooper's impact has been such that he was handed the captaincy of Australia at the tender age of 23 and has already accumulated 40 caps. Picture: Inpho/Ryan Byrne

Rhys Ruddock and Peter O’Mahony will have to workin tandem to negate the influence of Michael Hooper

1 Battle for control at half-back

Michael Cheika toyed with the idea of matching Ireland’s experience at half-back with the recall of Queensland’s favourite sons, Will Genia and Quade Cooper, who between them boast 108 caps. In the end he choose to stick with his familiar Waratahs pairing of Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley who, by comparison, are relative novices at this level.

That said, Foley has been outstanding since his elevation to the Wallaby ranks and looks even more comfortable alongside his club-mate. While the likes of James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale and Cooper bring a little more of a maverick unpredictability to the role, Foley is more tactically astute and much closer aligned to the Sexton model.

Trailing Wales by a point two weeks ago with seven minutes remaining he delivered a sweet drop goal to edge Australia in front while his place kicking stats are impeccable, converting 16 of his last 17 kicks at goal for the Wallabies.

The re-introduction of Matt Toomua at inside centre for this game adds another tactical dimension to the Wallabies play-book as he is an equally accomplished tactical kicker and distributor as one would expect from someone who regularly starts at out-half for the Brumbies. His selection not only increases the kicking options available to Australia but will add to the counter attacking mix on offer from broken play.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton delivered a master class against South Africa with Sexton particularly outstanding in the second-half. Cheika knows Sexton from his time in Leinster and will look to mess with his head. When coaching the Waratahs against the Lions last year, he targeted Sexton specifically and looked to get him sucked into rucks by flooding his channel with ball carriers and holding him into the contact area.

Sexton’s kicking game will have to be even more accurate today now that Israel Folau has been joined in the back three by the very impressive Henry Speight and both will look to punish any loose kicks. Ireland’s half-backs face far stiffer competition today than against the rookie pairing sent out by the Springboks two weeks ago.

Cheika even has the luxury of springing Genia and Cooper from the bench to pick up the tempo even further when the game opens up in the final quarter. With that variety of tactical flexibility available to the visitors, Sexton and Murray will be required to edge the key battle in terms of managing this game for Ireland to come out on top.

2 Breakdown efficiency

Playing against Australia presents a different set of ground rules when it comes to competing at the breakdown. Where South Africa rely on bulk and power to bully their opponents in the contact area, the Wallabies are more technically astute.

Known for their artistry and creativity behind the scrum, the other constant in every Australian side is a genuine back-row forager, a purveyor of the turnover. The World Cup-winning sides of 1991 and 1999 had outstanding operators in Simon Poidevin and David Wilson, while the production line in recent years has been even more impressive.

George Smith posed the biggest obstacle to the great Richie McCaw for a decade when it came to competing for turnovers in the tackle, or on the deck, before David Pocock sprung on the scene for Australia to set new standards. Still only 26, his career has been blighted by injury over the last three years — but into the breach has stepped Michael Hooper.

The loss of Pocock would have devastated any other team but such has been Hooper’s impact that he was handed the captaincy of Australia at the tender age of 23 and has already accumulated 40 caps.

With Chris Henry now joining Sean O’Brien on the sidelines Rhys Ruddock has, once again, been handed the No 7 jersey he filled so assuredly against South Africa. Australia also have issues in the back row with Scott Fardy, Wycliffe Palu and Scott Higginbotham all injured while like Jones has just a single cap to his name at this stage. Ruddock will have his work cut out competing with Hooper but himself and Peter O’Mahony will have to work in tandem to negate the effect of the Wallaby captain while Jamie Heaslip has the experience, form and expertise to tilt this key contest Ireland’s way.

A major asset in winning this battle is that all of Ireland’s players, regardless of the number on their backs, are now extremely well versed in cleaning out beyond the ball carrier and in protecting and placing the ball when entering contact. That makes life so much easier for a scrum-half and buys Murray vital seconds on the ball. Overall Ireland’s technical superiority and commitment to creating a clear separation between the ball and the closest opposition player on the deck should go a long way in blunting Hooper’s overall impact.

3 Defensive intelligence

When it comes to structure and clarity in defence, Ireland are much further down the road that this Australian outfit. Under the direction of Les Kiss, Ireland were wonderful in defence against South Africa despite the fact that the midfield combination of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw boasted only three caps between them.

Whether blitzing, drifting or scrambling, Ireland made all the right calls under big pressure from an unrelenting Springbok attack. When JP Pietersen did manage to breach Ireland out wide in the last play, the Irish back line was cobbled together due to injury with Murray deployed in the centre. By way of contrast, Cheika has changed the Wallaby structure in defence to the system favoured by his Waratahs team in Super rugby. This has led to uncertainty and the concession of 11 tries in their three tour games to date. While Cheika acknowledges that this is a worry, he is prepared to take the short term pain in order to achieve success in the longer term.

In practical terms what he does is take his principal playmaker in Foley out of the defensive line from set pieces in order to spare him the wear and tear of tackling the big ball carriers. He is often deployed in a sweeping role from the back three. It hasn’t helped that the Wallaby defence around the ruck and maul has also been poor, an area that Murray to certain to explore just as Rhys Webb did successfully for Wales a fortnight ago. Joe Schmidt is so tactically astute that you would expect him to devise a few power plays to exploit the potential vulnerability in the Wallaby ~defensive pattern. There were signs of improvement against France last weekend with the concession of just two tries having leaked four against the Welsh.

Australia also tend to defend narrow, leaving space in the five metre tram lines tailor made for one of those specialist Sexton kick passes. Australia were the pioneers of modern defensive play, conceding just a single try in their six games when winning the 1999 World Cup. If they fail to reproduce that type of defensive blanket against this Irish side, they will become the latest side to punished by the attention to detail teams under Schmidt’s direction bring to the table.


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