The decisive match-ups
1. Sexton and Reddan v Cooper and Genia
With Owen Farrell starting at out-half against the Queensland Reds in Quade Cooper’s only appearance against the 2013 Lions, Jonny Sexton had to satisfy himself with a cameo role against the much maligned Wallaby that day. Today at the Aviva Stadium, both Sexton and Cooper take centre stage and will play key roles in the fortunes of their respective teams.
Cooper seems to have matured as a result of missing out on the Lions series and with his elevation to tour vice-captain appears less maverick and more team player. The Wallabies are benefiting as a result. Having an additional play-maker at inside centre in Matt Toomua appears to have liberated Cooper. It also provides another tactical kicker along with shared responsibilities. Toomua, for example, now takes all the restarts.
The downside of this combination is that Christian Leali’ifano is demoted to the bench, which deprives the Wallabies of a front-line test place kicker. Cooper carries that mantle at present but without any great conviction. In international rugby you simply have to kick your goals. Sexton will certainly do that for you and a lot more besides. He will be thrilled to have so many familiar faces around him after a challenging first few months with Racing Metro.
Reddan has been selected for this one with a view to Ireland attacking more with ball in hand. Conor Murray did much of the tactical kicking against Samoa but Sexton will remove that requirement off Reddan. His brief is to pass and maintain a high tempo. The key to stopping Australia is to stop Will Genia. He has had a difficult season with his confidence severely rattled after a nightmare third test against the Lions. For a period after that, Genia was left on the outside looking in. With typical character, he has fought his way back into the side and is beginning to boss the show once more.
He will look to force the pace by taking quick taps from free kicks and penalties and his pace remains a big threat around the fringes of the ruck. Murray’s greater physical presence and his recent superiority over Genia have been sacrificed from the outset of this one. It will be interesting to see who will benefit more from that change at scrum half, Sexton or Genia.
2. Folau v Kearney
Once again the Lions tour has to be reference point when assessing the impact theses two quality players bring to the table. The one thing we can say with certainty about Australia’s latest Union sensation is that the burden of expectation sits comfortably on his shoulders. Less than six months in the union code before the Lions tour, there were varying opinions as to his readiness and capacity to cope with the demands likely to be imposed by Warren Gatland’s massive back line.
Yet, even in defeat in that opening test in Brisbane, Folau on debut stole the show with a blistering try after only 12 minutes, followed by a second six minutes before the break.
With a further eleven tests under his belt since then, including three against New Zealand and two against South Africa, Folau is even better now. He poses a more dangerous threat operating from full back, where he has more of a licence to roam, than from the isolated perch out on the wing he occupied against the Lions. His lines of running are brilliant while, for a big man, he has magical feet and invariably beats the first tackle.
In the past a relative novice stationed at full back was sure to attract an early aerial bombardment to test the nerve and fielding ability of the rookie. His time playing AFL, however, has made Folau impregnable in the air. Just watch his hang time today.
He really is a spectacular athlete.
Kearney, no slouch under the high ball himself, would have watched in admiration from the sidelines as a hamstring issue put him on the back foot for the entire Lions tour.
He will relish the chance of show casing his skill set today against an opponent capable of redefining the art of counter attacking.
There were glimpses against Samoa last week that Kearney is rediscovering the form that made him the European player of the year in 2012. With Joe Schmidt’s attacking blueprint slowly taking shape, Kearney will be offered opportunities as a key support runner when Ireland launch a series of strike moves from set play. He understands Schmidt’s attacking philosophy better than most and that should serve him well today.
3. O’Brien v Hooper
Much has been made of Sean O’Brien’s shortcomings as an out-and-out open side over the last few seasons. Much of that is due to the fact that a requirement of the role sees him first to the breakdown, contesting the tackle area which by definition means he has less opportunity to make his trade mark, barnstorming carries.
There is much truth in that theory but O’Brien has managed to fine-tune his poaching skills on the deck to such a degree over the last twelve months that he is fast approaching the impact in that area enjoyed by Richie McCaw and David Pocock. He has a far greater understanding of the role now and is more effective as a result.
When Pocock cried off Australia’s pool game against Ireland in the 2011 World Cup, O’Brien was offered the freedom of the park when the Wallabies played without a genuine No 7 in Ben McCalman. In Pocock’s continued injury absence, the Wallabies haven’t repeated that mistake. Michael Hooper is making such an impact that the absence of Pocock hasn’t been anything like as striking as it was two years ago.
Against the Lions, Hooper suffered hugely from the fact that his front five were on the back foot, especially in the third test when O’Brien was handed a belated start in the absence of Sam Warburton.
He was sensational and has carried that form into the new season where he has excelled on every outing.
The key to the Australian game plan revolves around providing quick ball for an ever-improving back line playing a third successive test as a combination and scoring tries for fun.
McKenzie is fully aware that Ireland intend to overload the contact area early on in an effort to stop Genia dictating the flow of the game.
He has recalled Scott Fardy to the back row and while he has made a big impression since winning his first cap post the Lions fallout, he is a second row by trade with the Brumbies.
With O’Brien working in tandem with the in form Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip, Ireland have better balance in the back row. Paul O’Connell and Rory Best will further aid that unit in effecting turnovers or, at worst, delaying the delivery for Genia. The Tullow man has made great strides since that famous night in Auckland two years ago and his battles on the deck against Hooper and McCaw over the next eight days could elevate him to even greater heights.
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