Donal Lenihan on why Ireland’s tour of Australia will be very different from those that have gone before.
1. A shift in the ground rules
Much has changed in the eight years since Ireland last contested a series against the Wallabies on Australian soil.
A season earlier, the Irish had won the Grand Slam for only the second time in history but that achievement didn’t seem to impress the hosts. Despite all their talk in praise of Ireland, they never believed that they could be beaten. In the end, they were proven right.
This time around Ireland again travel as Grand Slam champions of Europe but the Wallaby players now display a genuine air of concern.
For the first time, they face into a home series against an Irish team not only higher in the world ranking — 2nd to the Wallabies’ 4th — but the achievement in winning 12 tests on the trot, coupled with Leinster’s dominance on the European club stage, has resonated hugely over here.
Indeed Scott Fardy, who was central to Leinster’s success, has not been slow to talk up the qualities and capabilities of his new Irish teammates.
In a sports-mad country, the Australian athlete is never short on self-belief but the rugby fortunes of the two-time World Cup winners has taken a battering lately. Losing 53-24 to Scotland in Murrayfield last November has done little for the sport in a country that only covets winners.
Former Leinster coach Michael Cheika is under pressure and, 15 months out from the World Cup in Japan, needs his Wallaby side to stand up and make a statement over the next three weeks. Having lost a home series 3-0 to England two years ago, the last thing he needs now is a series reversal to another Six Nations invader.
That is why he has gambled everything in generating a positive start by insisting that the opening test is played in SunCorp Stadium in Brisbane where the Wallabies appear to reserve their best performances.
In the last three tests here, they have beaten Italy, South Africa and, most notably, New Zealand 23-18 last October.
“We always seem to play better here than anywhere else and I feel a lot of the guys will say the same thing,” chirped the experienced Will Genia earlier in the week.
Was he clutching at straws? Australia know they have to get off to a winning start here today but Ireland look the more cohesive unit coming into this game. That offers them a rare advantage when taking on Australia in their backyard.
2. A contrast in styles
The thing that differentiates this Irish team from most other opposition in the southern hemisphere is the quality of their kicking game. Before every contest these days there is a recognition from Ireland’s opponents that their back three will be put under enormous aerial pressure.
Some coaches respond by tweaking their selection in that area to cope with the hang time and accuracy of the bombs that regularly come their way courtesy of the Irish half-backs. Cheika might have expected Johnny Sexton to be orchestrating that today but Joe Schmidt bit the selection bullet earlier than expected on this tour by starting Joey Carbery.
I admire him for that. It won’t alter Ireland’s kicking strategy in the slightest, especially with Conor Murray partnering Carbery. Being forewarned offers no guarantee that the Wallabies will be able to deal adequately with the examination that awaits.
Cheika said as much in advance of Ireland’s arrival when briefing the Australian media.
“They are obviously very well coached, they’ve got a clear and coherent plan they want to deliver and they deliver that plan every week. That’s what’s got them to number two in the world.”
At least in Israel Folau, Australia have one of the best exponents in dealing with high ball, having honed his skills in that area from his time playing Australian Rules with Greater Western Sydney Giants where he was a one-time teammate of former Cork hurler Setanta Ó hAilpín. Folau is so good in the air that Ireland must avoid kicking to him and instead target Maria Koroibete on the wing who despite his undoubted attacking ability, offers nothing like the same solidity.
Cheika has made it clear his team will be looking to play Australia’s traditional brand of running rugby, reduce their penalty count and up their work rate in the three tests. To achieve that they will have to compete at the set piece where the quality and accuracy Ireland’s scrum and lineout will test them.
The scrum has been an ongoing issue for Australian rugby for some time even if they have enjoyed more periods of stability in recent times with Sekope Kepu a key component at tighthead.
The fact that Ireland start today without all three of their Six Nations front row of Cian Healy, Rory Best, and Tadhg Furlong will encourage Cheika even if the Irish starting trio is formidable, with the combination set to finish even stronger. The Wallabies lack that degree of front row depth.
So much of Ireland’s feared power plays stem from lineouts — think CJ Stander’s stunning try against England after exquisite handling from Furlong and Bundee Aki.
The fact that new hooker Rob Herring hasn’t thrown to James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, or Stander that often could mean less fluidity out of touch than became the norm in the recent championship.
That said, with a debutant hooker in Brandon Paenga-Amosa and the lack of a test quality jumper in the back row, the Wallaby lineout looks ripe for picking, with O’Mahony poised to pounce.
3. Ireland need ‘Pooper scoopers’
What the Wallaby backrow lack out of touch is more than made up for by their clinical excellence at the breakdown. As a New Zealander, Schmidt appreciates more than most the virtue of having an open side scavenger to poach turnovers and create havoc on the deck.
For some time now Australia have taken this to another level by pairing two out-and- out groundhogs in Michael Hooper and David Pocock — known collectively as the ‘Pooper’ over here — in the same unit.
More often than not, they make up for their lineout deficiencies by generating numerous turnovers from which Australia will always counter-attack.
They have serious pace across the backline and in the absence of an organised defensive line off those turnovers, their ability to transition quickly from defence to attack has Schmidt worried.
Ulster-bound Jordi Murphy has enjoyed a remarkable few months but has performed at No 8 in Leinster’s stunning finish to the season.
Picked ahead of Dan Leamy at openside, he faces the acid test today in attempting to come to terms with the menacing threat posed by the ‘Pooper’ pairing.
Murphy will be looking to Stander and O’Mahony to aid him in that battle and to the front five to target the dynamic duo in every clean out.
They have to be hit hard and cleared out of every ruck before they get their hands on the ball. To win this one, Ireland need everyone to become ‘Pooper scoopers’ at the breakdown.
Schmidt’s unexpected selection tweaks for this opening test has created an element of uncertainty around the contest. Then again he rarely gets these calls wrong. Carbery was always an option to start at least one test, it’s just nobody thought it would be the first one.
Another surprise is the fact that he made four changes to the pack that secured the Grand Slam with Furlong, Healy, Leavy, and — bizarrely in Best’s absence — Sean Cronin, either starting on the bench or excluded.
That has opened the door for Australia to get the series off to the win Cheika craves but question marks remain as to whether they are good enough to achieve it.
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