Joe Schmidt’s squad rebounded from their opening loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane with a 26-21 win in Melbourne last Saturday, giving the Allianz Park tiebreaker all the hallmarks of a high-intensity knockout game. Ireland should use this opportunity accordingly to further stress-test the players in such a situation against southern-hemisphere opposition.
In Port Elizabeth two years ago, eight months on from Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final exit at Argentina’s hands, the Irish came up short against the Springboks having landed the opening punch with a historic first victory on South African soil in the opener at Newlands.
Fifteen months out from the next World Cup and now Grand-Slam Six Nations champions ranked second in the world, Ireland can rubber-stamp their credentials as serious contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup by proving in Sydney on Saturday (11am Irish time) that they can close out the deal Down Under.
Forwards coach Simon Easterby does not dispute this final game of the season represents a good World Cup dry run. “Yeah, I guess it offers an opportunity, away from home, with a squad of 31/32 players that we’re together and we’re playing for something special; something that hasn’t been done — when was the last time we won in Australia, 39 years ago?” he said yesterday.
To win a Test series in the southern hemisphere is a difficult thing to do. We know, we found that out in South Africa when we were 1-0 up and we came away with a 2-1 loss. These experiences are great for what will hopefully happen in 15, 16 months’ time.
Unlike against the final Test against the Boks, which followed a second-Test loss at altitude in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, this summer’s tourists have momentum going into Saturday’s game, having last weekend won on Australian soil for the first time since 1979 to give them the chance to further emulate that vintage with a series win. All good karma in the preparations for next year and a pool campaign against Scotland, hosts Japan, Russia, and a play-off winner, either Samoa or Germany.
“It certainly adds to the players and adds to their confidence, and TO know that they can come to places like this and win last week after getting beaten the week before,” said Easterby. “And then the challenge is, can we back it up this week?
“A World Cup is potentially like that, where you might lose one but you’ve still got another chance and then after that it’s knockout rugby and you don’t have a second chance. This week is a great opportunity to do that.
“We knew after the first Test that we had another two chances, and having won last weekend, we want to win the series and we want to step to the next level, then it’s important that we get the performance this weekend.”
Despite a morale-boosting win in Melbourne, Easterby has plenty to work on to get his forwards performing at an even higher level this weekend. The week following the series-opening loss in Brisbane, it was the front row who were determined to right the wrongs of a scrummaging malfunction that changed the course of the game 12 minutes from time at Suncorp Stadium.
This time around, Easterby is dealing with an entire pack stung by conceding a penalty try in the opening half at AAMI Park after getting the runaround by a 26th-minute Wallabies maul.
It makes them pretty angry. I think the disappointment was that we didn’t get some of our key things right in that maul.
“The guys are hurting about that. You’ve got to take it on the chin but you’ve also got an opportunity this weekend to rectify errors.”
Ireland are hoping to tick both boxes this weekend, landing a character-building series win in Australia and strengthening squad depth with further exposure to tier-one, southern-hemisphere opposition. In this regard, the development of Easterby’s options at hooker and in the second row are early contenders as the successes of the tour.
Rob Herring and Niall Scannell have both stepped up to the plate in the absence of injured skipper Rory Best, with successful starts at hooker in the first and second Tests, respectively. At lock, the resources have been boosted by the addition of Munster-bound Tadhg Beirne, who will join the province on his return from Australia after signing from Scarlets.
Add Beirne, 26, to a second-row talent pool that includes James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Quinn Roux, as well as Devin Toner, and Easterby has every reason to be pleased with the way Ireland have coped since the retirement of Paul O’Connell after the last World Cup.
“They’re all guys that can play at a certain level and also step up to the next level. We’ve seen that in James this year and hopefully Tadhg will go back to Munster and start to produce the sort of form he’s produced for the Scarlets for the past couple of years and he becomes a genuine option for us.
He’s been one of the form players, hasn’t he, certainly over the last 12 to 18 months. He’s adapted really well, fitted in seamlessly into the group. He’s a good guy, he’s learning new things and adapting to new strategies and systems but he’s been excellent.
“I think the fact that he’s coming back to Ireland and joining Munster will hopefully allow him to integrate that much quicker into their set-up.”