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Ireland primed to sign off great year with clean sweep

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Ireland team-mates (from right) Jamie Heaslip, Rory Best, Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney see the funny side of things at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Ireland team-mates (from right) Jamie Heaslip, Rory Best, Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney see the funny side of things at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

<a href='http://cdn1.independent.ie/incoming/article30765243.ece/2b1c5/binary/Australia.png' target='_blank'>Click to see a bigger version of the graphic</a>

<a href='http://cdn1.independent.ie/incoming/article30765243.ece/2b1c5/binary/Australia.png' target='_blank'>Click to see a bigger version of the graphic</a>

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Ireland team-mates (from right) Jamie Heaslip, Rory Best, Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney see the funny side of things at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

What is it about the favourites tag that itches at the Irish neck to such a degree?

In other countries, they relish the idea of being talked up and respond, but the nature here is to shy away from the compliment.

All week, the question looming over this Ireland camp is whether they can handle the heat of expectation that comes with being European champions, ranked third in the world and backed by the bookies to beat one of the southern hemisphere's big three.

They have earned those accolades through their performances and results.

This time last year, they were going into the final November international as rank outsiders after a four-tries-to-nil defeat against today's opponents.

Since the harrowing defeat to New Zealand that followed, they have lost just once, at Twickenham, won the Championship in Paris, defeated the Springboks and become a hardened, clinical outfit coached by a man who appears to respond to every success by asking for more.

Those, as well as the prospect of watching some of the world's most exciting players in Israel Folau and Co, are the reasons the Aviva Stadium has long been sold out for this afternoon's meeting. The expectation has risen to match Ireland's achievements. The team's competence breeds a nation's confidence.

If the players at large are keen not to, as Conor Murray so succinctly put it, fall in love with themselves, those at the top appear to be encouraging a certain belief.

"Maybe ye haven't expected it of us, but I've always had high expectations whenever I've played with Ireland," captain Paul O'Connell said yesterday.

Expectation

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"I think we've had great players and I think we haven't always performed to the best of our abilities. I've always felt the weight of expectation whenever I play with Ireland. I still feel it there.

"I think the way of managing it at the moment, in terms of improved performance and improving week-on-week, is a good way of doing it."

There would appear to be no fear of a repeat of last year's horror show, after which O'Connell lamented getting the balance between knowing everything required to execute the game plan and bringing the requisite intensity.

The game tape might go out the window due to Australia's change of coach, but the feeling of disappointment that Ireland felt a year ago can be channelled this afternoon.

There are individual disputes to be settled. Rob Kearney was hounded by the Wallabies for a perceived slight in the press room and lost his battle with Folau, the scrum was out-muscled by a Wallaby pack who played the referee and the defence was shredded by Quade Cooper and his all-singing, all-dancing friends out wide.

Barring a late switch from Michael Cheika, the magician is kept in reserve this afternoon as the talented Bernard Foley continues his impressive stint in the gold No 10 shirt.

Alongside him is the tidy Nick Phipps, who is bound to be more sure-footed than the atrocious Francois Hougaard was when the Springboks came to town.

Ireland's half-backs were magnificent two weeks ago, but they will hope for more attacking, go-forward ball this afternoon. Australia are not a small team, but they don't possess the sheer brute force of the South Africans across the park.

That means the home side should be able to get their game going a little more and they'll hope to spend some more time in the opposition '22' this time around.

That will mean replicating their intensity and accuracy at the breakdown where they blew South Africa away with their body-positions and technique.

Ireland will hope to cause more problems with ball in hand, with the weather forecasters optimistic about the conditions.

Schmidt stressed that an off-loading game will only come if the players are breaking tackles as they did against Georgia, but he will hope to be able to introduce some of his trademark starter-plays off good set-piece ball.

Certainly, Wallaby captain Michael Hooper is full of respect for the Ireland forwards, saying: "They've got really good forwards, tall forwards who can pressure the set-piece.

"Sexton is obviously a world-class 10, so there's threats all over the park like we've seen in teams all through the trip.

"It was a really good performance against South Africa - we've come up against them a lot through Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, and they are a tough team to beat.

"So for Ireland to get a win over them is great for them and puts the pressure on us to get a win now.

"They are No 3 in the world now, a spot that we've held for most of the year. We want to try to get that back, and to do that you've got to go through these guys first."

Australia went through Ireland like butter at times last year and Schmidt will be hoping the defensive work carried out by Les Kiss over the past 12 months has tightened things up sufficiently.

The centres will be tested by Cheika's surprise combination of the silky second distributor in Matt Toomua and the all-powerful Tevita Kuridrani, who picked up a red card in last year's fixture.

Gordon D'Arcy and Robbie Henshaw have never played together from the start, but they spent a lot of time on the training field last season and will hope to build an understanding quickly.

This will potentially be Simon Zebo's biggest test in an Ireland shirt, with the Munster man lining up opposite the experienced Adam Ashley-Cooper and likely to face Folau at some stage.

Up front, Ireland will be hoping to learn from their scrum struggles against South Africa, having complained that the Boks used the illegal 'hit-and-chase' tactic. Watch out for Mike Ross lining up as close as possible to James Slipper to negate the impact of the referee's 'set' call.

Arguably the most interesting head-to-head will take place in the stand between the former Leinster supremos in charge.

They are contrasting characters, but both Schmidt and Michael Cheika are creative thinkers with winning in their blood in charge of two of the more cerebral international teams on the circuit.

The Leinster contingent in the Ireland dressing-room know better than to believe Cheika's team-sheet until they actually turn up on the day, while they are also expecting a tactical surprise or two.

Ultimately, though, it could come down to physical condition and which of the teams is fresher come the finale.

Schmidt rested most of his starters for last weekend's filleting of Georgia, while 11 of Cheika's starters went through what O'Connell reckoned was the most physical and intense of all of the November games thus far in Paris.

With New Zealander Glen Jackson in the middle, the game should flow nicely and Ireland will look to play at a tempo and keep the ball. Unnecessarily kicking to Folau is not a good idea, as they learned last season.

The brilliant full-back showed signs of fatigue last weekend, while Nathan Grey's defensive system appeared to have some problems bedding in. Expect Schmidt to have noted them down and tweaked his game-plan accordingly.

His side have earned the favourites tag through their series of wins and fine performances. The players have expressed a quiet, if reserved, confidence all week. They have beaten better teams than Australia this year, so there is nothing to fear, but they'll still need to be at their best to pull it off.

Verdict: Ireland 26 Australia 24


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