Sunday 8 December 2019

Tony Ward: Murray and Sexton can give Ireland decisive edge against Australia

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton at training together - if the Ireland forwards can provide quality ball, this pair can open up Australia. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton at training together - if the Ireland forwards can provide quality ball, this pair can open up Australia. Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Referee Steve Walsh Jnr has been criticised for complimenting Springbok full-back Willie Le Roux (pictured) for his beautifully timed try-scoring off-load to Cobus Reinach in the match against England last week. Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Relative to New Zealand and South Africa their resources are scarce, but there is something about Australia. Thirty times we've met and with one draw (in 2009) included, the win-loss ratio stands two to one in favour of the Wallabies. Nothing unusual about that I guess given we've only beaten the Springboks five times out of 50 shots at the Big Two.

Over a 23-year period, between 1979 and 2002, the Wallabies racked up 11 straight wins during what was undoubtedly the golden period for Australian rugby, including World Cup wins in 1991 and 1999. Since then - and with professional rugby here kicking in, allied to our own golden generation of players - the divvy-out has been more evenly spread. Australia are still ahead, but unquestionably there is now a sense of journeying into the unknown when green meets gold.

Despite losing out badly in the corresponding fixture 12 months ago, the game in Auckland back in 2011 marked the most important win and greatest single achievement ever for Irish rugby at test level given its World Cup context. It provided proof positive that when everything is right in terms of preparation - not least self belief - then anything and everything is possible.

We dare not tempt fate but, from an Irish perspective, today promises all of that and more. In a game loaded with possibilities, the very bottom line smacks of uncertainty at the outcome. That in essence is what rugby at this level should be all about.

There is, too, the coaching factor and while neither Joe Schmidt nor Michael Cheika will take the field, their influence in every way will be enormous. It makes for a riveting side show as the two men to make Leinster rugby the global force it is come head to head. The game was a sell-out anyway but dare we suggest had Croke Park been the venue, the capacity would still not come remotely close to the number of seats required. For a non-competitive (bit of a misnomer, I know), non-Six Nations, non-New Zealand match, the interest is extraordinary.

Certainly for the recently-installed Cheika, this European tour represents a baptism of fire. The Barbarians to start, followed by Wales, France, Ireland and England on successive weekends. Think about it. We cringe every second year when just two of those venues, Paris and London, represent our on-field destinations from hell!

Even the Barbarians game (and I'm not a new-age fan with the original concept long lost) proved high on intensity and competitiveness. A win in Cardiff was followed by defeat in Paris, but in a belter of a match which could easily have gone either way. Make no mistake but under Cheika, even at the tail end of their season, this is a proud and developing Wallaby squad on a mission. Would we want it any other way?

To that end he has named a squad as close as doesn't matter to full strength. The four changes from last week include a first cap for the exciting Henry Speight on the left wing. Speight v Tommy Bowe and Adam Ashley Cooper on Simon Zebo should be worth the admission price alone. Rest assured neither wing combination is picked to make up the numbers.

That said, the general feeling on the Aussie side is of a team selected for trench warfare and specifically the inclusion of Luke Jones at the breakdown, plus Matt Toomua in the centre, not to mention the pur physicality of the Fijian-born Brumbie, Speight, on the wing.

The overall impression, with absolute foundation, is of a Cheika team (and by extension squad) picked to do a Cheika job. It may not always be to the purists' liking but for the ultra-pragmatic Cheika there are many ways to skin a cat and he (much like Schmidt and don't kid yourself any different on that count) will pick whatever it takes to win.

You will often here it said about Australian rugby players that they are the most difficult of all to play against because they think as they play. It is said and oft-repeated because it is true. New Zealand and South Africa boast much greater strength in depth but it is because of that ability to innovate and change course midstream that makes Australia different. There is for sure something about Australia and that is the challenge facing Schmidt, Paul O'Connell and all the rest this afternoon.

But Irish rugby is in a good place, arguably the best we've ever been. Schmidt is right when he plays down the relevance of that third place IRB (now World Rugby) ranking achieved this week. Ask him the same question in a few hours time and I suggest his take might be different. Win today in the definitive battle for third behind the big two and it makes for some boost going into our defence of that Six Nations crown.

Schmidt has selected along predictable lines with Rory Best and Gordon D'Arcy returning at hooker and inside centre respectively. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander as the Irish coach matches his Wallaby counterpart blow for blow. The loss of Chris Henry is unfortunate and we wish the dynamic Ulster flanker a full and speedy recovery but, with Rhys Ruddock back on board, what you see in that guaranteed trench warfare is what you get.

In theory it gives the visitors a breakaway advantage through skipper Michael Hooper but rest assured Schmidt will have covered that base too. On the assumption the Irish set-piece improves significantly, the use of possession again at half-back will be critical. Take Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton to deliver.

Ireland by a whisker.


Don't slate Walsh for appreciating Le Roux art

It went somewhat under the radar but much-maligned referee Steve Walsh Jnr has shipped more flak for having the audacity to compliment Springbok full-back Willie le Roux for a beautifully-timed try-scoring off-load to Cobus Reinach against England at Twickenham.

Walsh made the comment "lovely pass" to Le Roux as match official and player walked back following the South African try. Apparently it has upset some who feel the man in the middle should be above such chit-chat with players. What unadulterated nonsense! Yes the New Zealand (now Australian) affiliated referee could be accused of showmanship in times past, but to fault him for saying to Le Roux what everybody else in the stadium was thinking. . . spare me.

I can be as critical of referees as anyone but far from pillorying Walsh, we should be holding this exchange up as an example of everything positive in interaction between ref and player. French referee Francois Palmade was of like mind in my time.

Thank God for the Palmades and Walshes of this world.

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