We’ve come a long way, now for the hard part

TICKING THE BOXES: Ireland coach Joe Schmidt leads from the front during the captain's run at the Aviva Stadium. Picture: Billy Stickland

AUTUMN INTERNATIONAL:
Ireland v Australia
So far so good for Joe Schmidt and his blossoming Ireland team.

This has been a month that has seen the national side tick all the boxes presented to them on the head coach’s pre-Guinness Series checklist and a couple more besides.

Claimed a southern hemisphere scalp by beating the South Africans first up. Check.

Developed and deepened the strength of the wider squad with a decent performance from the second string to grind down and then put Georgia to the sword. Check.

Dealt seamlessly with the adversity of, first, the injuries to key players like Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien, Andrew Trimble and Rory Best, and then with the shocking news of Chris Henry’s suspected mini stroke on the morning of the Springboks game. Been there.

Strengthened the belief within this group of Six Nations champions they have the potential to not just challenge but beat the world’s best. Done that.

Now comes the hard part.

Are they mentally tough enough to embrace the high expectations now swirling around them and beat Australia this afternoon.

Ireland’s latest world ranking of third behind only top dogs New Zealand and second-placed South Africa is rightfully dismissed as meaningless from within the Irish camp. Yet however flawed the official system may be, it is as good a barometer as any of the progress made by Schmidt in the last 12 months since that passionless defeat to the Wallabies a year ago.

And today’s reprise against a team now under new management and with plenty to prove themselves following a poor outing against France last week provides an even better measure of where Ireland stand in the Test arena as they sign off for 2014 and turn into a World Cup year.

Captain Paul O’Connell believes his side has come a long way since the disappointing 32-15 reverse to the men in green and gold. It was Schmidt’s second game in charge and was characterised by players trying too hard to carry out their new coach’s instructions and failing to bring the required clarity and intensity that have now become staples of the Irish modus operandi with only one loss in 2014, to England at Twickenham, from nine Tests to date.

“I suppose it probably doesn’t take as much work to prepare us as maybe it did back then,” O’Connell said yesterday. “I think we were very disappointed after that Australian game and we had almost had to cram for the New Zealand game.

“Even though that Australia game was a big disappointment it did teach us a lot. There are so many technical things you have to get right in rugby but if you’re thinking about technical things when you go out on the pitch on Saturday it’s very hard to play with intensity. It’s very hard to play with the right physicality levels and, for me anyway, that’s what that week against Australia gave us.

“I think we’ve pretty much improved since then. There’s been disappointments along the way, the England game in the Six Nations and some aspects of Argentina even though a lot of new guys played in Argentina. But I think a lot of guys realised that early on in the week, you’ve got to lock away that detail and that knowledge, and you’ve got to get ready to play a rugby match at the weekend.”

So Ireland are much better placed to deliver Schmidt’s instructions and showed that capability against the Springboks a fortnight ago when defeating the world’s second-ranked team in spite of a malfunctioning scrum and lineout.

Now they have to back it up and prove they can consistently produce against the big guns by beating Australia for a first clean sweep in November since Eddie O’Sullivan’s side defeated South Africa, the Wallabies and the Pacific Islands in successive weeks to close down the old Lansdowne Road in 2006.

For all the talk of Australia being a rugby superpower the Wallabies are the one southern hemisphere giant that Ireland would want to be facing this weekend in order to complete that sweep.

They still represent an extremely tough challenge for this Ireland side but their performance against France last weekend in Paris suggests a team still taking baby steps under new coach Michael Cheika, particularly in terms of the defensive set-up. Conceding 11 tries in three tour matches against the Barbarians, Wales and France is pretty shambolic stuff from a team of that quality and Ireland will be hoping those teething problems have not yet been ironed out as Schmidt experiment with a new midfield combination of Gordon D’Arcy and Robbie Henshaw at outside centre.

This is as much as 21-year-old Henshaw’s acid test as it his team’s with the Connacht rising star finally getting his chance in the 13 jersey for which he has been earmarked since well before Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement last May.

He has plenty of experience around him in fly-half Johnny Sexton, D’Arcy and full-back Rob Kearney to ensure he does not lack for advice in the white heat of a high-intensity Test match but their experience will only count for so much, the rest is up to the Henshaw and if he can get through this examination against a powerful opposite number in Tevita Kurindrani then Schmidt will have gone a long way to solving one of his most pressing issues ahead of next September’s World Cup pool campaign.

Henshaw’s performance today might not be the difference between victory and defeat but he and Ireland are in an excellent position to prove they can be contenders at next year’s tournament. Now they have to grasp the opportunity in front of them.

How they match up: Simon Lewis looks at the key battles

SCRUM

Ireland: Yet to fire on all cylinders after a rough outing against South Africa, scrum coach Greg Feek will be looking for his pack to make a step in the right direction after an improvement against Georgia. Tighthead Mike Ross makes his third straight start of the autumn, loosehead Jack McGrath returns after Dave Kilcoyne started against the Georgians and they are boosted by first-choice hooker Rory Best making his first start of the series. 3½/5

Australia: The Wallabies scrum held its own against the French in Paris last Saturday night, with a 100% return on their own ball while giving the hosts some awkward moments on their seven put-ins. No longer the Achilles’ heel for Australia and Cheika retains his front row of Slipper, Fainga’a and Kepu. 3½/5

LINEOUT

Ireland: Paul O’Connell was his harshest critic after the South Africa game saw the Irish lineout dominated and he and Devin Toner will look to make amends against Australia after Dave Foley led a successful set-piece against Georgia on his debut. Best’s return as thrower helps restore a Six Nations-leading lineout unit to full strength with Foley on the bench. 4/5

Australia: Despite the new coaching set-up, there has been no system overhaul yet with James Horwill, Rob Simmons and back row Sean McMahon sharing the load as targets for Saia Fainga’a. Simmons stole one French throw last Saturday but the Aussies lost two of their 13 lineouts. Horwill and McMahon have been replaced this week, Sam Carter coming into the second row with Luke Jones in at flanker maintaining a variety of options. 3½/5

BREAKDOWN

Ireland: With one of the game’s great poachers in Michael Hooper marauding in the Wallabies back row, Ireland are going to have to repeat their breakdown effort against South Africa if they are to prevent a high turnover count and keep producing quick ball for Conor Murray. Similarly without the ball they performed heroics at the ruck against the Springboks, slowing down ball and giving their scrum-half Hougaard a terrible time. More of the same is required here and their ruck work is boosted by groundhog Rory Best’s return. 4/5

Australia: Hooper is the key, as suggested, although the Wallabies were not at the races in Stade de France. Like the rest of their defence, Cheika’s influence will bear fruit but this weekend may have come too soon for Australia. If it does come good, though, a strong work ethic in defence will keep Ireland busy in contact, with a potentially dangerous back three poised to quickly turn any turnover ball into points. 3½/5

KICKING

Ireland: Johnny Sexton returns to the line-up looking to repeat a perfect goal-kicking performance against South Africa. He wasn’t bad out of hand either although like the rest of the backline there was a mix of good and average tactical kicking. Ian Madigan’sassured performance against Georgia suggests he offers plenty off the bench. 3½/5

Australia: Bernard Foley has been perfect off the tee both against Wales and France, with 100% returns from six kicks in each Test. He has held off the claims of Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale again this weekend but will have to improve a much-criticised tactical kicking game which almost cost them victory in Cardiff. 3½/5

ATTACK

Ireland: Cut loose last Sunday with six second-half tries against Georgia but Australia’s defence will pose tougher questions. Robbie Henshaw’s switch to outside centre will be keenly analysed to asses Ireland’s wide attacking potential with the Connacht young gun at its cutting edge but conditions may force a narrower approach and Ireland have plenty of firepower in that regard also. 4/5

Australia: A more potent backline to face Ireland after scoring only two tries from 62% possession against France last week. Debutant Fiji-born wing Henry Speight replaces Joe Tomane and Christian Leali’ifano’s poor show in Paris has seen him ousted by Matt Toomua, a more playmaking 12 giving them plenty of options on either side of the ruck or set-piece. With Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Tevita Kuridrani remaining and Genia, Cooper and Beale in reserve, the potential is frightening if Foley can make them click. 4/5

DEFENCE

Ireland: The heroics against South Africa will need to be repeated against Australia and a sloppily conceded try against Georgia last week will have focused minds this week. To contain the Wallabies Ireland need to be quick off their line and into Australian faces. 3½/5

Australia: Michael Cheika has switched the Wallabies to the blitz system he employed at the Waratahs, also keeping fly-half Bernard Foley out of the 10 channel. It is still very much a work in progress and the missed tackle and error counts are too high — in three tour matches against the Barbarians, Wales and France, they have conceded 11 tries. 3/5

TOTALS

Ireland: 22½/30.

Australia: 21/30


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