Ireland v Australia
Joe Schmidt will send his Ireland team into their showdown with Australia tomorrow urging them to embrace the high expectation they have generated among their supporters after a year of success.
In sharp contrast to the perceived wisdom Ireland rugby teams perform best when they carry the underdogs’ tag, their status as Six Nations champions, conquerors of South Africa and number three-ranked team in the world means the label does not currently apply, even if the final game of the calendar year is against southern hemisphere superpower the Wallabies.
Having selected his strongest team for tomorrow’s third and last Guinness Series Test, welcoming back first-choice hooker Rory Best after injury and partnering Gordon D’Arcy in midfield with rising star Robbie Henshaw, Schmidt will tell his players not to fear the growing belief in them.
Asked if he was encouraging his Ireland squad to embrace their favouritism, Schmidt said: “Not so much the favourites’ tag. Just the expectation. People have this expectation for a reason. Let’s try to provide the reason. Expectation is there because we anticipate an outcome, we anticipate something happening because we base it on what we have seen before, our past experience. That’s how kids learn, that’s how the world turns.
“We want to live up to that expectation so people do have a basis for it and I guess expectation doesn’t have an end point and at some stage, because inevitably players are human, there will be a bad performer or a bad performance or a bad instinct or action in a game and that might cost us.
“We want to try and minimise all that negativity and unfortunately you are always going to get errors in games, because people are humans but if you minimise them and you maximise their belief that they can do things then hopefully the expectations can be met.”
Whether that message sinks in with a team that has grown up in an Irish sporting culture which has thrived in the international arena as the underdog is another matter, Schmidt conceded.
“We’ll find out,” he said. “It’s a good question. There’s a point in time where hopefully that extraneous kind of pressure gets superseded by an internal belief and an internal focus on what you are looking to achieve. Hopefully that is the way the balance falls.
“I have no doubt we are feeling more pressure this week. I’m not sure you can shield a team from the public eye and the public expectation because in the end they live in amongst it...They are aware of the expectations. I’d like to think it’s no harm. I think we can buffer ourselves with an internal belief and an internal focus on what we feel we need to achieve to win the game, not be distracted by it. Even be motivated by it.
“The fear factor exists in all of us because naturally we don’t want to let people down. We know that this game has been sold out for a long time. We know that the crowd want to be there to support the team and they want the team to be accurate enough, to be physical enough that they merit that support.
“The players are really aware of that and I guess there is that motivation factor, there is that level of anxiety that is positive and when it gets beyond that positive point it can start to manifest itself in some pretty negative anxiety and therefore have a detrimental effect. Hopefully that is not the case.”
The Ireland head coach will experiment with a third different centre partnership of the November campaign as he bids to find the right midfield combination to take into next September’s World Cup following the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll.
Handing Henshaw a start at outside centre having started at No.12 against the South Africans with Jared Payne on his outside, marks the first time the Connacht star has donned the iconic 13 jersey vacated by O’Driscoll and for which the 21-year-old has been earmarked as the heir apparent and Schmidt warned supporters to expect some youthful impetuosity in the role.
“There’s going to be a degree of naivety in a younger play, that’s inevitable,” Schmidt said. “I think with Gordon, it’s nice to have that bit of experience with Robbie... to have 80 caps’ experience playing at inside centre with him playing at outside centre.”
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