Australia have turned game around since Lions – Kearney
PERHAPS no one in the Irish squad is better placed to assess where Australia are right now than Rob Kearney.
The combination of a hamstring injury and Leigh Halfpenny's boot meant that the Leinster full-back had front-row tickets for all three Tests of the Lions series last summer and, while it wasn't where he wanted to be, he learned plenty about Saturday's opponents.
The 2013 Wallabies won't be remembered as a vintage crop, but they are coming out of the slump that cost Robbie Deans his job, and new coach Ewen McKenzie is slowly but surely restoring them to something close to their former glories.
Kearney believes that they have made plenty of progress and are a more cohesive outfit now.
"I think they've changed a huge amount. I thought during the Lions tour they were pretty poor," he said.
"They've got a lot of new players in, and the style of their play is very different, too; there seems to be a little bit more direction.
"They know where they're going. I think during that summer they were a little bit guilty of not really having a clue where they were going next and what they were doing."
Australia may have been some way short of their best during the Lions tour, but they still won the second Test and pushed Warren Gatland's side close on the first outing.
Their Rugby Championship form was poor, but started to come good at the end and Kearney admits that even a disjointed Wallaby unit remains dangerous.
"They were a team under pressure," he recalled. "At the same time you got a sense of, 'If you let these guys play and you leave them in a game, they are still well able to hang in there'.
"Even though they were playing poorly in those first two Tests, they could still easily have won them. In that third Test the Lions probably put their best performance together and came away with a pretty easy victory, but you could still see that Australia had a lot of raw talent.
"Raw talent does keep you in games even if you don't necessarily have that coaching structure behind you."
The focus at Carton House this week has turned towards the challenge Australia will bring on Saturday, with the Samoa win fast fading in the rear-view mirror.
It means that Kearney has not had time to reflect much on the moment when he fed his younger brother Dave for his debut try, a moment to cherish at the family home in Louth.
It was a dream debut for the youngest Kearney brother, who had to wait a long time for his first cap after he togged out as an unused replacement during the 2012 Six Nations.
"It was nice," said Rob. "It's one of those moments that maybe down the line, in time, we'll appreciate more. Often, when you're in the moment, and you've got a game in seven days later, it's difficult to get caught up in it, but there's no doubt it was a special moment to give him the pass for his first international try on debut.
"I was really delighted for him. What happened 18 months ago with him coming so close for it and having to wait longer than we all would have liked... I was really happy for him, he made a great impact and it's always nice to get a couple of tries."
While the elder Kearney himself played well in the victory over the Samoans, he believes there is plenty of room for improvement in Ireland's game, with ball retention in particular a focus coming in against a dangerous Australian side.
"I thought it was mixed," he said of the 40-9 win. "Our performance wasn't where we would have liked it to be for our first game, but we got the win which is always the most important thing.
"We put 40 points on them, which at international level is not the easiest thing to do.
"There are probably more positives to be taken than negatives.
"We had far too many turnovers than what we expect from our team. I think we turned over the ball 24 times – they might not all have been handling errors, but passing is one area that we as a backline take a lot of pride from.
"When that skill isn't up to scratch it just puts the team under unnecessary pressure and it's a skill we should be able to execute every time."