Sunday 21 January 2018

Tony Ward: Ireland to build on Chicago and push case for top-four seeding

Iain Henderson Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Iain Henderson Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

From the frying pan into the fire. We don't want to tempt fate but this evening's Guinness Autumn International against Australia - the 33rd between the countries - has all the ingredients for another bruising encounter not a million miles from what we witnessed at the Aviva just seven days ago.

Much has been said and written about what transpired in 80 minutes of full-blooded physicality between Ireland and New Zealand, with the All Blacks the transgressors and us the innocent victims.

The one thing I would concede a week on is the need for greater assertiveness from the officials running today's game. Jerome Garces must carry much more conviction in his decision-making than Jaco Peyper did last week.


Comparing him with the best in Nigel Owens is probably unfair but when the Welsh man barks (which is not all that often) it has the desired effect. Even in his deliberations with the TMO you feel (with Owens) it is the referee running the show and not the other way around.

The one thing guaranteed is that Ireland face in the wounded Championship Wallabies a force that is on the way back. They may not be shouting it from the rooftops but after six defeats out of six against England and New Zealand (seven if you include the World Cup final), this is now a Wallaby side in search of a Grand Slam before drawing the curtains on an otherwise disastrous 2016.

Today, as Michael Cheika has pointed out, they face the most difficult game of the four to date. Win in Dublin and the England showdown in Twickenham will look after itself. And the Cheika factor is massive today.

It might be the stuff of myth and legend but Cheika's time in Ireland saw the D4 image and 'ladyboy' tag erased from the lexicon of Leinster rugby forever.

Joe Schmidt will be the first to concede that he inherited a pretty solid forward base to do what he did when taking Leinster through total rugby to two more European titles. The input of Cheika and Schmidt to Irish rugby has been immense and I hope the Lansdowne crowd gives him the welcome he deserves.

For Ireland, it has been a momentous month and while losing last week was disappointing the manner in which we played, the quality and quantity of possession and territory against what is still by a distance the best team in the world marks this as the most progressive phase so far under Schmidt.

Win today (another huge ask) and it will be wins over all three traditional southern hemisphere giants in a single calendar year. It is an amazing opportunity, unprecedented in Irish rugby.

There is too the little matter of world ranking points with the World Cup 2019 draw scheduled for Kyoto in May of next year. As of now we are in fourth place behind New Zealand, England and Australia with eight November wins between them from the nine matches played. Add in our two from three and the importance of today's fixture is clear. If we could retain that fourth position (ahead of South Africa) through today and the Six Nations (with England and France at home) then a top-four seeding is eminently possible and what a difference that could make in three years' time.

For the Wallabies, it's leg four of an unprecedented Five Nation Grand Slam (including France) since doing the old Four Home Nation sweep with the Ella brothers etc back in 1984.

So what can we expect? Well, for starters, an Australian forward unit picked to negate the Devin Toner-led Irish dominance out of touch. With Dean Mumm selected at six alongside Rory Arnold and Rob Simmons, it indicates a concerted effort to at least make Irish possession out of touch sporadic. Cut the main source of supply and build momentum from there.

The giant Mumm is a mobile unit and will not be found wanting in support of David Pocock and Michael Hooper but short of printing his intent, the Cheika objective is in attacking Ireland at source.

Pocock and Hooper are the master craftsmen in pilfering possession at the breakdown, probably the two best poachers in the world in the dark art. But we're no slouches in that department ourselves with CJ Stander, Seán O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip making the battle of the back-rows the juiciest clash of all.

I am glad to see the head coach go with the Garry Ringrose/Jared Payne centre pairing from last week. It's hard to accept that a so-called inside centre cannot play outside and vice versa. You need greater pace in the wider channel but a footballer is a footballer is a footballer and I'm sure Ringrose and Payne will mix and match positions today.

Josh van der Flier can consider himself mighty unlucky not to start but it is a pragmatic selection based on a 23-man team with arguably the greatest potential impact ever to line out in reserve.


Only at scrum half, where Conor Murray is currently lording it over all and sundry, could we be said to be lacking at least the equal of the player set to be replaced.

We have in Jack McGrath, the centurion hooker Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Seán Cronin and Finlay Bealham probably the most talented half dozen front-row forwards ever to tog out in green at the one time. Throw in Iain Henderson with Ultan Dillane in reserve and I think it fair to say our tight five machine is in a pretty good place.

Cheika has thrown down the forward gauntlet. He won't be disappointed. However, if there is a concern it's the threat posed by the Australian back three of Israel Folau, Dane Haylett-Petty and Henry Speight, plus centre Tevita Kuridrani. The bookies have been finding it difficult to separate the sides all week. But in beating New Zealand in Chicago we have moved to a new level of competitiveness. With Kyoto calling, we can take all three southern hemisphere scalps in the one calendar year for the first time. Ireland by six.

Irish Independent

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