Three key areas Ireland need to address to keep series alive, writes Donal Lenihan
Right from the outset, when Israel Folau dominated the skies to pluck Joey Carbery’s high hanging kick-off at Suncorp Stadium, Australia delivered in all the key moments of the opening test.
If Ireland are to square the series in Melbourne today then Joe Schmidt’s men must seize the initiative from the first whistle and set the ground rules up front.
Ireland here with the big reputation yet allowed themselves to be outmaneuvered in too many key areas last weekend.
The Wallabies were the ones delivering all the big hits, affecting the key turnovers and dominating all the crucial aerial contests.
That enabled the hosts to grow and set the pace in their first test match in six months.
Most telling of all was the dominance enjoyed by the Wallabies at the breakdown. Throughout their 12-match unbeaten sequence, dating back 15 months, it was Ireland’s superiority in contact and their ability to recycle ball quickly that enabled them to control the momentum of games.
With the indefatigable David Pocock - rejuvenated after a self-imposed exile from the game to recharge his batteries and explore the world outside the professional rugby bubble - reunited with his partner and captain Michael Hooper and dominating the tackle area, Ireland were outsmarted in a facet where they usually excel.
While Schmidt had a number of ‘work ons’ (as he likes to call them) this week the most important area in terms of changing the course of the game is in finding a way to dilute the impact of the Wallaby backrow.
With this in mind Dan Leavy, a specialist openside, was always going to come back into the mix.
The big question was whether Schmidt would entrust an uncapped rookie in Tadhg Beirne to bring his famed poaching skills to the mix which he has now chosen to do, even if it will be off the bench at some stage in the second half.
Beirne has demonstrated a varied skillset with the Scarlets over the last two seasons and it will be interesting to see if he can bring those onto the international stage. Given the massive influence he has exerted at the breakdown all season, he might also be able to highlight what it takes to successfully nullify that threat as Leinster did against him in the Guinness PRO14 final last month.
To achieve that, Leinster had one of their Academy forwards wear blue headgear, the same as Beirne, in training all week. The message was simple. When you saw blue blob entering the breakdown, the nearest player was immediately tasked with clearing out that player before he could get his hands anywhere near the ball. It would be no surprise to learn that one of the Irish players was forced to wear a grey scrum cap, as Pocock regularly does, in training all week with a similar message imparted. Pocock’s influence needs to be diluted to win this test.
If Ireland’s breakdown woes were exercising Schmidt’s mind overtime this week then he would also have been putting pressure on his kicking coach Richie Murphy to come up with tweaks to Ireland’s kicking game. Used spectacularly as an attacking weapon over the last few seasons, Australia found a way to turn it to their advantage.
In all, Folau caught the ball from high hanging aerial bombs on eight occasions in the Brisbane test. Only three of those were sent his way from teammates, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale, with the other five stemming from the boot of an Irish player. That proved criminal and played into Wallaby hands.
One assumes that the folly of kicking down Folau’s throat from kick-offs and restarts will cease immediately as that ploy failed miserably last time out. Ireland would have been better employed either looking for grass in the backfield through the use of low bouncing grubber kicks or by delivering a few chips into the space immediately vacated by the Wallaby midfield, whose line speed in defense caused their Irish counterparts problems all day.
The ironic thing is that Australia’s kicking template last weekend was borrowed from Ireland’s playbook. Michael Cheika had been observing Ireland’s success with their use of the boot and decided to explore the possibilities for his team.
Cheika admitted that it forced him to consider exploiting an advantage they rarely use through the aerial skills of Folau and Dane Heylett-Petty. While he admitted that “it goes against the grain for them to kick away possession - it’s not my normal way of playing footy - it does have positives for us”.
Ireland’s success with the boot is now causing other teams to explore the same possibilities as coaches will always seek to examine what winning teams are doing and look to replicate that. With Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray reunited once again today, Ireland must re-establish their mastery with the boot.
If selection alone for this test is the yardstick for which side has more scope for improvement then you would have to think that Ireland, with eight changes to the starting side including the return of six regulars from the Grand Slam winning side, lead the way in that regard.
Unsurprisingly Cheika has retained his entire matchday squad from Brisbane but they cannot afford to drop the intensity and physicality they brought to that opening win if they want to repeat the outcome.
Winning another test on a meagre ration of 38% possession, as they managed last week, will be difficult.
If anything, with five alterations to the pack that started last week, Ireland will be targeting a big improvement in the set piece, specifically the scrum and to their lineout maul.
For some reason, 54 minutes had elapsed before Ireland choose to launch their maul last weekend and, even then, they got very little change from the exercise.
As a means of tying in the opposition backrow alone it is a useful exercise but, even more so, as Ireland have succeeded in pummeling far bigger and technically superior packs than the Wallabies.
On limited possession, Australia managed to show how much more dangerous they are than Ireland, especially from broken play. The fact that Ireland tend to defend narrowly, leaving space on the outside, suits the Wallaby skillset especially with both Foley and Beale interchanging at first receiver.
Beale has a stunning passing game and his ability to deliver accurate 15 metre passes means they can take out a number of Irish defenders in one go. Yes, it is laced with danger as those passes are open to interception from a defender shooting up quickly but that is the way they play. They are willing to take risks. That presents both a danger and an opportunity for Ireland.
To win today Ireland will have to break their try-scoring duck from last week as you just know the Wallabies will score tries. Where we tend to over rely on gaining a foothold in the opposition twenty-two to launch a punishing series of pick and gos to score tries, the Australians are more instinctive, especially off turnovers. With Pocock and Hooper guaranteed to supply a few of those, they have the capacity to score from anywhere. With the Leinster midfield axis of Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose restored, one hopes that Ireland will be more inventive in attack. Ringrose has the ability to expose Samu Kerevi’s shortcomings at this level.
I expect to see a massive improvement from Ireland, both technically and in terms of the intensity levels they will bring to this test. If they can re-produce the clinical efficiency that saw off all other opposition prior to their arrival here, then this series will come down to a decider in Sydney next weekend.
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