Ireland v Australia
Joe Schmidt has a genuine opportunity to make his mark on Test rugby tonight when he sends out his re-booted Ireland side to face Australia.
Both sides are under new management, with Schmidt succeeding Declan Kidney at the end of last season, and Ewen McKenzie taking charge of the Wallabies in mid-July following their series loss to the British & Irish Lions under Robbie Deans.
Yet while this is just Schmidt’s second game at the Irish helm, McKenzie has had plenty of time to get his feet under the table as Australia have slogged their way through an arduous Rugby Championship campaign with only wins over Argentina and a third Bledisloe Cup loss of the year with the All Blacks. Now they are at the midway point in a five-game European tour that has so far seen a narrow defeat by England and a convincing win over Italy.
Performances, including 18 tries scored in their last four games, suggest the McKenzie model has his team on an upward curve but that does not mean Schmidt’s Ireland are not also prepared for lift-off after an all-important opening win over Samoa last week.
Despite a 40-9 scoreline and a 5-0 try count, teething problems abounded in terms of poor ball retention and defensive lapses yet this is the first time on tour that Australia are not playing a team facing its first outing of the campaign and the noises out the Ireland camp are that lessons have already been learned from last weekend.
With a backline anchored by Will Genia and Quade Cooper, Australia remain a dangerous threat to any defence, including arch-rivals New Zealand, against whom they scored 78 points in three meetings this summer.
That all of those were defeats by the All Blacks, with the concession of 115 points, will tell you McKenzie still has some way to go but while Schmidt is right to highlight the Wallabies’ attacking potency, just three wins in nine games means there has to be some vulnerability for his players to exploit this evening in front of a sell-out Aviva Stadium crowd.
“There’s always opportunities to create doubt,” Schmidt said. “Even in the best teams in any sport, doubt can seep in if you come under pressure. At the same time, I think one of things, you get a sense when you’re in a team that’s on an upward spiral. That sense is a degree of confidence and excitement and that’s a great blend to have as a group.
“I think most people would start to see that in this Australian team, that there is a blend of excitement and confidence starting to exert itself.
“I think most would acknowledge that they were a little bit unlucky against an England side that’s always very difficult to beat at Twickenham. If they’re able to spread the game and get their key ball runners into the game, the evidence against Argentina and against Italy is there for anyone to see. “Even against the All Blacks, they’ve scored a lot of points against the All Blacks. They’ve conceded a lot but it’s difficult to score that amount of points against an All Blacks side and they’ve regularly scored a couple of tries, even three tries against them without getting the victory. So their attacking prowess is pretty visible, speaking beyond those 18 tries.”
Still, you sense the New Zealander will have been emphasising the start of that statement to his players rather than the middle and end.
The message to Ireland is clear, to beat Australia you have to create doubt and put them under pressure. That means turning the screw in the scrum and lineout to deliver a platform for the backs, something Ireland were particularly good at against Samoa last week, and most importantly winning the breakdown contest.
It has been done before against the Australians, most wonderfully at the 2011 World Cup when Genia and company were choke-tackled into submission. Things have moved on since, of course, but there is still the recognition that if the Irish pack can give their rivals a torrid time in the rucks, cut down on turnovers and either deny the Australian backs ball or at the very least make sure it’s slow and messy ball, then victory can be achieved and Schmidt will have laid down a yardstick for his future endeavours.
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