If Ireland were under any illusions about how tough the defensive challenge that awaits them at Suncorp Stadium this morning will be in this opening Test against Australia, then listening to Wallabies captain Michael Hooper yesterday will have removed any doubt.
For all the hype that has accompanied Joe Schmidt’s Grand Slam winners since their arrival in Queensland a week ago and the expectation back home of a first series win Down Under since 1979 to stretch their winning streak beyond the current mark of 12 Tests, the touring party itself has been concerned with the numerous attacking threats the Australians possess.
With a back row of Hooper, David Pocock, and the debutant No. 8 Caleb Timu capable of producing quick ruck ball for a half-back combination of Will Genia and Bernard Foley only too willing to fire it out wide through Kurtley Beale to the likes of Dane Haylett-Petty, Marika Koroibete, and Israel Folau, the weapons in Michael Cheika’s arsenal are both impressive and daunting.
No wonder Schmidt called them one of the two best attacking teams in world rugby alongside the All Blacks.
Hooper confirmed there is no lack of self-belief in his side either.
“We’d be silly not to run the ball with some of the strike power we’ve got,” said the Wallabies skipper.
“We’ve got a really fit team — forwards who want to work and get over the ad-line. We’ve a mobile back row and we’ve seen during the Super Rugby season some of the damage that the backs can do and some of the form that our playmakers are in.
“We’ve got to be smart in how we do it. Some of this stuff needs a little bit of a tweak sometimes in how we relieve pressure at times because we know that the Irish are good — they build pressure.
“We saw what they did to some teams in the Six Nations, how they can put up a kick anywhere on the field and keep putting pressure on you, so how we deal with that is critical.”
That respect for the Irish is well placed given the men in green are now ranked second in the world, two spots above Australia. Though Schmidt will always and understandably talk up the opposition rather than highlight his own side’s strengths, Hooper was happy to follow his own head coach’s lead and do that for him.
Cheika had called this Ireland squad the ‘greatest in Irish rugby history’ and the back-rower leader yesterday underlined both their competitiveness as the breakdown and their ability to build a score through consistent pressure.
“They had more than three, around half a dozen (choke tackles), when we played up there a couple of years ago, just curling that wall around guys and holding them up. So working to position, getting forward, and showing a bit of deception will hopefully prevent them from doing that.
“This Ireland team is really good at building pressure so when you do give them an early lead, it’s not impossible to track them down but it’s hard because they’re able to keep you playing out of your area, you’ve got to run the ball and chase the game, and that opens you up to more risk. We’ve got a great ability to run it from everywhere but doing it in smart ways is crucial to minimising the risk.
“We may have to adapt on the field and I think Kurtley has been someone this year who’s worked on his game around feeling that and changing it, putting in a kick, putting the pressure back on and knowing that we have time to score and so on.”
There is no doubt that even with the changes Schmidt has made to his team for this series opener, not least in starting 22-year-old Joey Carbery at fly-half rather than Johnny Sexton as well as Rob Herring and John Ryan ahead of Sean Cronin and Tadhg Furlong in the front row, Ireland have the tools to repeat the feat of the class of 1979 and win in Brisbane.
It will not be easy and if the going does get tough for the starters, Schmidt has the excellent back-up policy of a strong and experienced bench of forward power, Sexton’s playmaking nous, and backline X-factor in Jordan Larmour.
Yet the Ireland head coach has prioritised a strong start at Suncorp Stadium to knock the bounce out of the Wallabies at their favourite ground to negate the Brisbane factor which contributed to an epic victory over New Zealand on their last start here back in October.
“Hopefully to start with we’ll get some really good support from some local (expatriate) fans, some fans who have travelled,” said Schmidt.
“Hopefully we can keep the local Wallaby fans relatively quiet in the first quarter. I think a lot of it is based around that first 30 minutes, making sure you try to control as much of the game as you can. Because if you don’t they can score so quickly with guys like Haylett-Petty on the edge and Koroibete they can go through you so damagingly with
Kurtley Beale’s foot-work; he’s got a lot of power through the collision and (centre Samu) Kerevi has both of those things as well.
“Bernard Foley runs such a good game and from turnover ball they’re so dangerous. You’ve got to be prepared for anything, because there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the ball-carrier and the ball they’re carrying. And at the breakdown there’s going to be a lot of pressure and a fair bit of line-speed on us.
“If we want to relieve the pressure and kick poorly, then there’s a fair bit of hurt can come your way pretty quickly as well. Trying to control that first 15 minutes is a massive task for Joey and hopefully he gets some good assistance from Pete (O’Mahony), who leads the team, and guys like Conor (Murray) inside him who takes the pressure off and the guys outside him in Bundee (Aki) and Robbie (Henshaw) who teamed up really well at the start of the Six Nations.”
A fast start and an assured finish would be just the job to kick this tour off in style.
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