Australia’s back-row strength sets up an epic battle, writes Brendan O’Brien.
Battle of the back rows
Australia seem to be in a far better position now than they were during the Rugby Championship, even if they scraped wins against Scotland and France while easily accounting for Wales. The infusion of some new blood by Michael Cheika has played a major part. But one constant with the Wallabies this last few tumultuous years has been the excellence of a back row that will again include the imperious duo David Pocock and Michael Hooper, after the latter was rested in Paris last week.
Add in the relatively new but impressive 26-year old Lopeti Timani at number eight and the tourists boast serious credentials in the back row. It makes for a serious test for their highly-rated Irish counterparts regardless of whether CJ Stander makes it or not.
This alone could be epic.
All eyes on Paddy
Ulster’s out-half stepped unto the breach in South Africa in the absence of the injured Jonathan Sexton and he will be asked to do so again this week as the Leinster man recovers from yet another hamstring injury ailment.
Jackson’s goal-kicking has been superb of late and he does a lot of the basics very, very well but there is still a sense that we need to see him stamp some authority and a greater sense of direction and purpose on an Irish back line that huffed and puffed against New Zealand last week.
Garry Ringrose did brilliantly when parachuted into the midfield in place of Robbie Henshaw at such an early stage of last week’s defeat to the All Blacks but it remains to be seen if the Leinster younger is given the nod from the off in Henshaw’s continued absence.
Luke Marshall played against Canada, and in South Africa during the summer, while Rory Scannell and Stuart Olding have both been called into the squad as cover this week. Whoever makes it, Jared Payne will be alongside them as the senior pro.
Andy Farrell’s influence since starting in the role as Ireland’s defence coach after the Six Nations has been lauded by players, opposition, media and public and yet the statistics don’t exactly back up the sense that Joe Schmidt’s side has locked up their try line and thrown away the key.
Seventeen tries conceded in six matches comes in at just short of three per game, even if the quality of the opposition has to be accounted for. Still, three conceded to Canada by the second string is suggestive of a system that still needs fine-tweaking.
Australia will be another test of that.
A great month or a disappointing month
There is no middle ground this week. Beat the Aussies and Ireland will have ended the year with the scalp of the three SANZAR nations in their back pockets and move on to the Six Nations with a spring in their step. Lose and the high of Chicago will seem a long way removed.
It’s a trifle unfair but there is no doubt but that momentum must be maintained and this last outing is arguably as great a test as that last week or in Chicago.
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