Niall Scannell will be thrust into action from kick-off this morning, as Ireland bid to win a first Test series in Australia since 1979.
The Munster hooker was promoted from the replacements bench to the Ireland front-row, to face the Wallabies at Allianz Stadium, because Sean Cronin was ruled out overnight with a grade-one hamstring injury.
Rob Herring comes onto the bench to fill the back-up berth vacated by Scannell, whose Test debut against Italy, in February, 2017 had come in similar circumstances. Then, Rory Best had taken ill and had withdrawn from the team at the last minute.
Today’s series-deciding encounter with the Australians will be Scannell’s second start in as many weeks. He will pick up a ninth Test cap, the Corkman having made a strong showing last Saturday, when asked to shore up the Irish scrum, after a shaky outing in the opening game at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium on June 10.
Despite losing Cronin’s speed and dynamism in open play, Ireland are getting themselves a solid scrummager and lineout thrower, important components of head coach Joe Schmidt’s side, as his Grand Slam winners attempt to close out a series in the Southern Hemisphere.
With a win apiece from what has been a compelling series, the expectation is that today’s finale in Sydney will be the most competitive, intense, and physical encounter of the trilogy.
Scannell’s extra ballast will not do the Irish any harm in front of a sold-out crowd, expected to be dominated by visiting supporters.
Schmidt has told his players they will need to put in their best performance of the season, if they are going to win this series, 2-1. Captain Peter O’Mahony, who today will make his 50th appearance for Ireland, alongside prop, Jack McGrath, does not disagree.
“We need to build on our performance from last week and that’s the main priority for us,” O’Mahony said.
“Their record at home is incredible and a team of their calibre, their performances, we have no doubt it’s going to be one of the best they’ve put in all year. We know we have to match that and go beyond, if we want to get a win.
“Of course, we want to go and win, but we know we’ve got to get our process right and our performance is paramount. If we don’t put in a good performance, we could be well-beaten by 30 or 40 points, if we’re not on the ball.
“There is that fear factor for us, that if you’re not good, they could put a lot of points on us,” O’Mahony said.
It might sound odd for the captain of the second-ranked team in world rugby — winners of 13 games out of 14 this season and 12 of them in succession — to be talking about a fear factor, but such are the expectations on this team to deliver now that a defeat this morning would make for a very long summer.
The joys of a Six Nations clean sweep, bookended by victories in Paris and Twickenham, would be overshadowed by the more recent agonies of a setback in Sydney. Such is the lot of a professional athlete or coach.
Outside observers can be less introspective. This is a side that might have been forced from Schmidt’s hand, due to injuries to Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Dan Leavy, and now Cronin, but the incentive to deliver burns just as strongly in those who remain.
As a stress test for a World Cup, a third, very different team in consecutive weeks is an ideal benchmark for Schmidt’s assiduous preparations.
There are concerns, not least the loss of Ringrose from outside centre, the absence of his creativity forcing the Ireland management to return to the midfield partnership forged in Connacht between Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw. Aki resumes duties at inside centre, pushing Robbie Henshaw back to 13, where he started in Brisbane and admitted to defensive errors in the 13 jersey, as Ireland lost 18-9.
Schmidt said he was confident Henshaw had fixed those problems.
“I’d like to think so. Robbie is the sort of guy who works incredibly hard on his game and is very reflective about performance. If anything, the key for Robbie is to keep confidence in his decision-making, because he’s a good decision-maker.
“I think, once or twice, he slipped off tackles when he actually made the right decision, so he’s just got to make sure he finishes the tackle and gets those things right, because he’s a super player for us and I think his combination with Bundee will be good.
“I think Garry slipped off a few tackles that people will have probably seen, as well, and that’s the challenge this week, to make sure we can nail all of those. If not, then certainly as many as possible.”
It will need to be as many as possible, as the Wallabies come out firing in Sydney, determined to make amends for their loss in Melbourne and smarting that their many strike threats in the backline were nullified for long periods and that their poaching superstars, Michael Hooper and David Pocock, were successfully managed.
This is going to be another close contest, but Ireland can round off a remarkably successful season by making another significant statement with a series win in Australia.
AUSTRALIA: I Folau (Waratahs); D Haylett-Petty (Rebels), S Kerevi (Reds), K Beale (Waratahs), M Koroibete (Rebels); B Foley (Waratahs), N Phipps (Waratahs); S Sio (Brumbies), B Paenga-Amosa (Reds), S Kepu (Waratahs); I Rodda (Reds), A Coleman (Rebels); L Tui (Reds), M Hooper (Waratahs) – captain, D Pocock (Brumbies).
Replacements: T Latu (Waratahs), T Robertson (Waratahs), T Tupou (Waratahs), R Simmons (Waratahs), N Hanigan (Waratahs), P Samu (Brumbies), J Powell (Brumbies), R Hodge (Rebels).
IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); K Earls (Munster), R Henshaw (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Stockdale (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); J McGrath (Leinster), N Scannell (Munster), T Furlong (Leinster); D Toner (Leinster), James Ryan (Leinster); CJ Stander (Munster), P O’Mahony (Munster) - captain, J Conan (Leinster).
Replacements: R Herring (Ulster), C Healy (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), T Beirne (Scarlets), J Murphy (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), R Byrne (Leinster), J Larmour (Leinster).
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France).
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