Joe Schmidt eyes the Triple Crown of big scalps to finish 2016
Coach wants victory over Australia to take the momentum into the Six Nations and beyond
Published 25/11/2016 | 02:30
The year is balanced finely for Joe Schmidt and Ireland. Tomorrow's game and the performance of the team will tip it either way.
How was 2016 for Ireland?
Well there was a disappointing post-World Cup Six Nations in which the coach invoked the dreaded word "transition", before a highly promising summer tour that ultimately ended in defeat.
A run of six games in seven against the Southern Hemisphere big three was always going to be a challenge, but history has been made along the way. Victories over New Zealand and South Africa will remain on the record books forever.
The inability to back them up will grate, but the performance levels have been largely consistent.
Eighteen debuts have been handed out, the coach has committed his future and fans can look forward to the Six Nations and the 2019 World Cup with far more optimism than they did a year ago, yet the momentum they have built can come undone at the Aviva Stadium.
"It's us hugely important," Schmidt (below) said when asked about finishing strong. "Especially when you've got pivotal players who aren't available, who have been part of the spine of the team for so long.
"We've worked our way through without having those players available. You're still Ireland. You're still a national team and you still take that much pride.
"These players really do take pride. There's not too many of them you can point out and say, 'well, he doesn't have pride in what he's doing.' He may not get everything right. But, he's working, he wants to get it right.
"It's incredibly hard not to get emotionally caught up with how much effort they're making.
"You are just trying to help them get the reward that they deserve for rolling their sleeves up.
"There's kids coming into this side that are pretty wide-eyed. If they can gain more experience this weekend, that's incremental.
"Chicago (Ireland's win over New Zealand) is a reference point for us and, result aside, I don't think we got too far from the reference point last weekend. I don't think we cowered or got knocked off our game too far, despite losing those three guys in the first 30 minutes and despite how physical the New Zealanders were.
"I thought they brought their A-game, certainly physically, and the guys stood up to it really well.
"I'd like to think that we can finish really positively, in a similar vein, and it would be great to get the result; it would be a bit historic.
"If we could get a result against Australia after getting a result in Cape Town and a result in Chicago, we could really say that we've got some kids that are coming through and that we're building something that will endure a little bit further into next year and the year after."
Schmidt has made four changes to his starting XV for the Wallabies clash, with Paddy Jackson and Garry Ringrose coming in for the injured Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw.
Keith Earls replaces Simon Zebo, who has struggled to shake off the effects of the All Blacks game, while Iain Henderson steps in for Donnacha Ryan, who loses out altogether as Ultan Dillane comes on to the bench.
Captain Rory Best will win his 100th cap, and Schmidt paid tribute to the Ulster hooker.
"I always saw Besty as a really difficult guy to get on top of when I was coaching Leinster," he said.
"We always saw him as the guy who, if he dropped his head, you knew you were on top of Ulster. But it just didn't happen.
"He is the guy who a lot of people don't notice, but his clean-out numbers and his carries when there's nowhere to go. . . There's slow ball, a brick wall and Besty will put his hand up and he'll still get his feet under and give a bit of a nudge forward so you can start constructing something.
"Defensively, he works so hard that he's pretty hard to fault.
"The biggest two similarities I'd make with him and Paul O'Connell are: 1. They go through the most thorough preparation they can to make sure physically they're ready to go.
"2. Neither say a lot. There are other guys who say things in the team, he is action-focused and he just gets on, does his bits of the game really well and he'll spur others on when required. I have the utmost respect for him."