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George Hook: If Ireland falter at ruck time and the battle is over


Henry Speight is the best winger in Australia and was good enough to play for Waikato in New Zealand when he was still in school. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Henry Speight is the best winger in Australia and was good enough to play for Waikato in New Zealand when he was still in school. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Henry Speight is the best winger in Australia and was good enough to play for Waikato in New Zealand when he was still in school. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

My taxi driver, my barber and my wife all believe Joe Schmidt is the best coach in the world and Ireland will win the next Rugby World Cup. The nation is in a state of euphoria. I am not sure whether it is because of reduced water charges or the defeat of South Africa, but both are based on a false premise.

Schmidt may not be a student of the Bible, but they might profit from the story of Jesus and his entry into Jerusalem. The evangelists wrote, that on Sunday the crowd laid palms before shouting, "hosanna, hosanna". By Friday they were shouting, "crucify him, crucify him". In Ireland, optimism and pessimism are rarely far apart.

Today, as the election pollsters say, is too close to call. Ireland's advantages are plain to see and very important.

The team is rested, they are on a high emotionally and directed by a coach who can plan for any eventuality.

In contrast, Australia are at the end of a bruising season, with a record of indiscipline and in the middle of an inhuman schedule of four test matches in four weeks. Astonishingly, Israel Folau has played in every minute of every game this year.

However, it must be remembered that if South Africa had played against Ireland like they did a week later against England, there would be a different mood in the streets. South Africa were poorly prepared, arrogant and without leadership. The Wallabies under Michael Cheika are unlikely to make the same mistakes.

It might be said that today will be a battle between the Irish pack and the Australian backs. There is some merit in that conclusion. Only New Zealand can challenge the innovation and invention of the men in gold.

The challenge just got worse with the selection of Henry Speight on the wing. He is the best wing in Australia and was good enough to play for Waikato when still at school. He brings Fijian power and pace to a unit that already boasts Folau and Tevita Kuridrani. The last quarter could see the arrival of Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale. Not an enticing prospect for any defence.

The arrival of Beale is interesting and says everything about Cheika's management style. If Schmidt is about the group, Cheika is about the individual. When at Leinster, the Australian gave a virtual free pass to Rocky Elsom's training agenda. The result was outstanding on-field performances and a trophy on the shelf. A rehabiltated Beale could spell trouble on the field rather than off, where up to now he has reserved his best showings.

This week it was suggested that Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray were the best half-back pairing in the world. It made for a good headline but little sense. Bernard Foley has been majestic on this tour and he has lived up to his name as 'The Iceman' with his metronomic place-kicking. Nick Phipps has proved an able partner, but even the home crowd would appreciate the masterclass that a Foley/Genia combination might offer.

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The scrum contest will be even but the return of Rory Best will strengthen the Irish line-out against a Wallaby unit that misfired against France. The Australian scrum caused France some discomfort which was a surprise.

Without seeming to make any dramatic personnel changes, the Australians have moved from disaster to competent. Ireland will not dominate, which means a steady set-piece will allow the visitors another attacking arrow in their quiver.

The contrast in this area between Jamie Heaslip and Ben McCalman will be instructive. All in all, this looks like a lightweight opposition up front and they will try to counter-balance that weakness by delivering quick ball from the ruck. In this phase, they are even quicker than the All Blacks. Ireland will try and slow it down, but if they fail then the defenders will face runners with and without the ball coming at them from a variety of angles.

Rhys Ruddock will find Michael Hooper a much bigger handful than the pedestrian Tebo Mohoje of South Africa. The rucks will be to Ireland what the beaches of Normandy were to the Germans. Lose the first phase and the battle is over.

If Schmidt was a mastermind against South Africa, he will only need Leaving Cert pass marks in strategy this weekend.

The battle grounds are clear. Slow the ball at the breakdown, dominate the line-out and keep possession and territory using Sexton to kick.

In Cardiff, there were tries aplenty, which would seem to indicate Wallaby defence is not as strong as Wallaby attack. We know Ireland can defend. If they do, a win awaits, possibly by penalties at the set-piece.

Like the next election, it is too close to call.

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