Joe Schmidt afforded himself a small chuckle when he was told that his players had been described by rival coach Michael Cheika as the “greatest Irish team in their history”.
The two former Leinster bosses had taken charge of a Heineken Cup team or two in their times as head coaches at the province, Cheika with the inaugural European success in 2009 when Ireland were flying high with a first Grand Slam since 1948 earlier that spring while the architect of that most recent Six Nations triumph had plotted glory in 2011 and 2012.
Now they go head to head for the first time on Australian soil with Ireland ranked second in the world, the Wallabies fourth, and Cheika praising Schmidt’s team to the hilt ahead of Saturday morning’s Suncorp Stadium showdown. “They’re the best team Ireland has had since the start of their rugby history. They’re coming down here as number two in the world. They can claim that they’re underdogs as much as the like, but they’re certainly going to be the favourites when you go off the back of the season they’ve had.”
Having welcomed the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, and Rob Kearney back from Ireland camp as history-makers, he should know a good Irish side when he sees one but Schmidt was not buying the plaudits from his opposite number just two days out from the first of three Tests they will battle on successive Saturdays. To the Ireland boss, Cheika’s flattery had all the hallmarks of mind games.
“I don’t do opinions,” said Schmidt bringing the hyperbole down a notch. “I’m boringly pragmatic, and I’d just say that this is an Irish side that the coaching staff are excited about putting out, and they’re excited about seeing what they can achieve and we’re excited about them rolling our sleeves up on Monday and trying to see what we’ve learned and put that into practice.
“I do think that this tour is going to be a process, and the process is going to work its way through three weeks, three really challenging weeks, and the shop window is those two 40 minutes once a week where you put those first and second halves back to back. But in and around that there’s going to be a lot of work and hopefully little bits of progress we can make and little bits of confidence we can create along with developing potential key players for the future.”
For all their apparent modesty, Ireland have been talked up here in Australia for weeks, the Rugby Union-following supporters fed a diet of praise about the Grand Slam winners backboned by Leinster’s double winners.
Cheika bigged them up further yesterday after revealing his team for the opening Test, explaining his statement about the 2018 model being Ireland’s best ever by highlighting not modesty but their supreme confidence.
“It’s funny, I was sitting in Twickenham watching the game against England (on March 17) and I had my hat down and there was Irish people everywhere.
“There were these chaps from Munster next to me, drinking beers and having a great time, right? And then they worked out who I was afterwards, they were into me and having a great time.
“After the whistle, I said: ‘Aw, you chaps will be favourites coming down to Australia after that’ and they were like: ‘Don’t be saying that, no way, we can’t be favourites.’
“That’s what’s different, this team has got a lot more self-belief around coming here and will believe that they’ll be able to do it.
“For us, we’re looking to become a great team together and show the opposition what we’ve got as well.”
Cheika will hand debuts to hometown Queensland Reds hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa and No.8 Caleb Timu for their first Test of 2018 while the Wallabies boss could also spring the uncapped back-rower Pete Samu from the bench just days after securing the player’s release from a New Zealand Rugby contract with the Crusaders.
Aside from Schmidt’s decision to hand fly-half Joey Carbery the biggest start of his fledgling Test career as Johnny Sexton takes his place among the replacements, the head coach has also opted to rest several other of Leinster’s Champions Cup and PRO14-winning stars, holding some of his big guns in reserve with the second and third Tests in mind. Joining Sexton on bench duty this weekend will be props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong, while lock Devin Toner, flanker Dan Leavy, and centre Garry Ringrose are the other Leinster men given an extra week to recover from their end of season heroics.
That means starts this weekend at Suncorp Stadium for Healy’s fellow Leinster loosehead Jack McGrath and Munster’s John Ryan at tighthead, while Rob Herring comes in at hooker for the injured skipper Rory Best.
In Best’s absence the captaincy has been handed to Munster’s Peter O’Mahony, who will lead Ireland from the back row, where Jordi Murphy comes in for the rested Leavy and CJ Stander retains his position at No.8.
There is one further change to the backline which started the Grand Slam victory over England at Twickenham that so impressed Cheika, with Robbie Henshaw, who missed that game through injury, starting at outside-centre in place of Ringrose.
Ireland wing Keith Earls welcomed the appointment of Munster team-mate O’Mahony as his captain for this Saturday’s first Test.
“The main thing is going to be his actions. From kick-off he is going to go out and go as far as he can for as long as he can. Fellas get in behind him, because that’s what you want your captain to do — to lead by example, and there’s no better man.”
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