Nothing characterises the Irish sporting psyche like our attitude to the respective Tests this autumn against South Africa and tomorrow’s Test against Australia.
Ahead of the South Africa game two weeks ago, people were fearful of a mauling. A one-score defeat was fine, thank you very much. Then we were underdogs. Now the country has flip-flopped to such an extent there appears a degree of certainty Ireland will roll over the Wallabies tomorrow.
We should be as fretful about tomorrow as some of us were confident two weeks ago. Joe Schmidt fears the new No. 3 world ranking might have come at a bad time. The Wallabies, coming off a loss in Paris, are at No 4. Joe’s becoming very Irish! Rankings are like GAA All Stars — they’re nice, but in the overall scheme, they don’t mean a whole lot. But it’s still better than being eighth and sweating on a World Cup seeding, that’s for sure.
Let’s be very cautious about Michael Cheika’s Australia, they are a proper team. And they have a similar dynamic with the Cheika-Waratahs axis as Joe Schmidt did when he got the ball rolling in Leinster. There’s massive trust between the Waratahs and Cheika, and the ‘Tahs are the linchpins of this Australia team. He will have them eating out of his hand.
The 29-26 defeat in France last Saturday only cranks things up further. Some perspective: The French treated the game like a World Cup final. They were ridiculed at home after being humiliated in Australia last summer. They did a lap of honour afterwards. Cian Healy would be impressed I’d say!
Time was when we revelled in being doughty underdogs in Ireland. We bathed in moral victories. Perhaps because of the number of players unavailable, Ireland played with a positive fear against the Boks. Maybe we still prefer being underdogs, but now we are favourites, something that doesn’t sit comfortably with Ireland against southern hemisphere teams.
Only when we string a series of consecutive results against big teams together will that mindset change. The timing of the fixture would usually suit Ireland — on previous occasions the Wallaby lads might have been on a bit of an end of season jolly. But not with Cheika. And not this close to a World Cup. The Wallabies will come to play.
Ireland were extraordinarily good against South Africa, so why does anyone think they can play at 60% against Australia and win? Against the Boks, the error count was so low and hunger levels so high, they just smashed South Africa. It might be hard, very hard, to reproduce that kind of intensity, and get the juices flowing, but this is reputedly another area Schmidt excels in.
The Georgia performance didn’t tell us a lot, but it accentuated the good buzz in the camp. Fellas want to play for Joe’s Ireland, whether it’s South Africa or a Tier 3 nation. The previous management would talk up games as ‘opportunities’ for fellas, whereas Schmidt just stayed in the background for the week, and let the players take control of the build-up. They all know there is something good happening with Irish rugby, so he didn’t have to say anything. The unspoken message was fringe players needed to front up against Georgia to keep themselves involved in the 23. And getting on the Test bus is what it’s all about — in the modern game, they are almost all guaranteed game-time. Even five minutes. The difference that makes to your morale and your head versus sitting with your sleeping bag on is a world apart.
The coach is building huge competition for places in key areas, but some jerseys are sacrosanct, no matter what Joe says. Form is temporary, class is permanent. When Sean O’Brien returns, he will go straight back in because’s he’s class.
The contract uncertainties are all but gone. The Johnny Sexton situation looks like it was a once-off. And even that didn’t end too bad for the IRFU. They put a value on him, he didn’t think it was enough, and he went. The Union have been consistent for a decade in how they have done their business. The losers were Leinster — the Union didn’t lose because Ireland won a Six Nations and Johnny was key. Sometimes the player goes and those faraway hills aren’t so green after all. They are happy to let the boy take the boat.
A different kind of problem is looming for rugby authority, however. The diagnosis on Chris Henry’s problem ahead of the Boks game is pretty sobering. I know Chris, he’s a hard lad. Knees and shoulders are fixable for players — but brain and heart problems aren’t career-threatening, they’re life threatening. There’s been a few coronary scares in recent times and the issue of concussion is now demanding the attention it merits. When you step outside the bubble after playing for 16 years, you look at things differently. Watching collisions now, you think ‘wow, that’s rough’, but at the time, it honestly doesn’t cost you a thought. You never feel like you are going to get injured. Players know things happen, but the second you start thinking about in a way that affects your approach, the game is up. Adrenaline is a wonderful tool and you get plenty of that at the highest level, but it’s never the day after — but the day after the day after — when your body feels like crying. I wish Chris Henry the very best.
Unsurprisingly, the team announcements yesterday confirmed that Rory Best returns to the front row. When Rory’s fit, Rory plays. Mike Ross needs the games to acquire proper match fitness but it’s lazy to say there are no alternatives at tight-head.
Such sweeping statements are erroneous until such time as Martin Moore gets in there and shows what he is or isn’t capable of. The show goes on. What was evident from the Georgia game was that the attack game and the system makes it easy to look good. When the ship is cutting through smooth waters, there are no ripples anywhere. Schmidt calls it the mind gym done during the week; then Saturday, everyone’s on autopilot. The back three of Kearney, Bowe and Zebo will do well to contain Folau, Ashley Cooper and Tomani. Once again Ireland are forced into an untried centre partnership. No. 13 is the hardest defensive position on the pitch, which is why Jared Payne is such a loss. He knows the position. Robbie Henshaw and Gordon Darcy have their work cut out.
Much depends on what kind of a job Ireland can do on Australia up front because we will have to kick better than against South Africa. It would be folly to be relying on Israel Folau to have a Willie le Roux sort of off-day. The Aussies have played down Cheika’s knowledge of the Irish, but he will know Johnny Sexton’s game inside out, and how to rattle him. What tactics Michael Hooper employs on Sexton will be interesting, because that lad is a serious player. He’ll be a rugby rock star in three years if he continues his upward trajectory.
I’m intrigued too by the Matt Giteau situation. For the moment he’s not in contention because he’s plying his trade abroad, but he’s continuing his Top 14 player of the year form this autumn. If the Wallabies want to win the World Cup, they need Giteau. He has it.
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