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Ireland aim to echo Lions' roar and level series

Farrell and Sexton channel spirit of Wellington

Johnny Sexton in relaxed mood during training at Melbourne’s St Kevin’s College. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton in relaxed mood during training at Melbourne’s St Kevin’s College. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The thought hadn't occurred to Johnny Sexton, but he's been in this very situation before and not too long ago either.

A year ago in Wellington, he was brought back into the Lions team charged with levelling a three-Test series after a humbling opening defeat and the lessons have been stored away.

Andy Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile
Andy Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile

Twelve months on, he is part of a different team facing a different opposition but there are plenty of overlapping personnel.

Andy Farrell is on the coaching ticket and set the tone yesterday with his call to arms, while Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath and CJ Stander were all part of the match-day 23 in Wellington when the tourists turned things around.

Cohesive

On paper, the challenge is similar but a cohesive, champion Ireland team can draw on a year of wins to help steel themselves for battle in Melbourne.

Farrell was quite open about what they need to improve on on the pitch, but he also called on the team to prove their mettle in comments designed to get a response.

Sexton sat on the bench for the majority of last week's game as Joey Carbery got his shot, but tomorrow Joe Schmidt will recall him to the team. And he is struck by the parallels.

"I actually didn't think of that comparison but I was on the bench for that first game as well," he mused.

"If you lose a game, you can look back and say, 'If we play as well as we can, and do everything we can,' you can live with it to a certain extent, but there's parts of the game that we look back on and say, 'We didn't quite do that good enough.'

"We could go out and play absolutely brilliant this week and still not get the right result because we're in Australia, playing against a very good team with very good players.

"That's the nature of coming down at the end of the season and playing Tests down here. At least let's play our best and see where that gets us.

"It's probably similar in terms of we didn't play as well as we could in the first game and that was a frustration.

"If we'd played as well as we could in that first Test in New Zealand we felt we could have got a result. We felt the same this week - if we'd played as well as we could, we may have won.

"We may not have, but that's the biggest frustration from our point of view. We didn't hit the standards that we want to and the coaches demand, and let's do that this week and see where it gets us."

Farrell bluntly laid out what is needed from the team. "We'll see what we're made of. I mean, this is what top-level rugby's all about.

"We'll see what the good old-fashioned Irish ticker's about, won't we? Because it's the game that matters for us to stay alive," he said.

"There's a few lads that are a bit down on themselves, a bit frustrated. There's a realisation that they deserved to win and that hurts within itself and I do get the sense that after a couple of meetings and understanding how we need to move forward for the rest of the week that the key is to hold them back, especially after watching training this morning."

"Sometimes it isn't complicated, you know, sometimes it's a little bit of attitude and a bit of fight."

It has been a long, successful season for this Ireland team but, despite a number of uncharacteristic errors by big-name players in Brisbane, Farrell refuted the notion that fatigue was a factor.

"It's not even in our vocabulary, it's not," he said. "We're here to win a Test-match series against the number three (team) in the world, it doesn't really get any tougher than that.

"If you can't get up for that, can't get excited for that. If you can't get excited about the week that we've got ahead then we're in the wrong place.

Fatigue

"Nobody's mentioned fatigue. Of course it's been a hell of a year but these boys are gung-ho to play a Test match and draw a series, make it level at the weekend. There's no excuses there."

Ireland ran into problems against two of the game's market leaders in their respective departments in Israel Folau and David Pocock, but there is no sense that they will be sitting back and admiring their quality in Melbourne this week.

"We're good at that, aren't we?" Farrell said of the aerial and breakdown sectors.

"You can talk all day long about the brilliance of certain people at the breakdown for them, but we've prided ourselves and shown in the past that not too many people get access that way into our game.

"They had a plan and it was a great plan and they backed themselves with it.

"Is it a 50-50 when the ball's in the air with him (Folau)? Probably not, he's so good at it.

"But there are certain things that we can do with it, you can say that you can get pressure on the kicker and we can but there are times when they are so deep that you can't get there anyway....

"But it was the accuracy of how we got into the air sometimes, we let him dominate the space more than he should.

"He had it a little bit too much his own way. They position him very well and their attacking kicking game is in accordance with that. We can recognise better and make it more of a contest.

"A lot of it (with the breakdown) is to do not just with the breakdown guys but the ball-carrier himself. He can have a better impact there, and the animation around the ball-carrier which gives you one-on-one tackles rather than two-on-one tackles.

"But we're normally pretty good; I'd say the best in the world at no time and space, and we were slow to react to certain things at the weekend."

Farrell described the tourists as being like "bears with sore heads", but he'll want to see a Lions-like response come Saturday night in AAMI Stadium to level things up.

Irish Independent

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