Wednesday 18 September 2019

Ireland's big hitters can rescue series

Dan Leavy going through his stretching during the Captain’s Run at the AAMI Park in Melbourne Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Dan Leavy going through his stretching during the Captain’s Run at the AAMI Park in Melbourne Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It has been interesting to observe Ireland this week as they adapted to life on the back foot for the first time in 15 months.

In public, they have been open about what has gone wrong, with players and coaches happy to go into forensic detail about the breakdown issues, handling errors, scrum woes and defensive mis-steps that led them to an 18-9 defeat.

click to enlarge graphic
click to enlarge graphic

Behind the scenes, the coaching staff flicked a switch and looked at ways to rectify those issues in the week between games one and two in this series as they look to prevent a dead rubber in Sydney.

Andy Farrell's decision to publicly question Ireland's heart was an interesting move, one that took Michael Cheika by surprise. Clearly, the defence coach is looking for a reaction from his players who fell below their own standards in Brisbane last weekend.

"I've been a little bit surprised actually, because I've seen a couple of their coaches talking about they'll see where the ticker is or (how) they'll get up for it now because of that," the Australia coach said.

"I thought they were pretty good last week. The physicality they brought to the game and the intensity they brought to the game was pretty immense.


"You can't have a physical game without two teams bringing it. I was a little bit surprised that they've been saying the bear was poked, because I thought they gave it to us as much as we got stuck in last week.

"So, I'm sure they'll bring a lot of intensity to the game but they're always going to bring high-quality footy. That's why they're number two in the world and we're going to have to lift our game, lift our work ethic to get a foothold in the game."

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Cheika is correct, Ireland weren't bad last week, but under Joe Schmidt they strive for the perfect game and they were some way off that standard.

This week, they are out of excuses with jet-lag long forgotten and experimentation put to one side.

If he was picking a World Cup final team from this squad, this is close to what the head coach would select.

The unchanged Wallaby side know that Ireland's changes have shifted the balance; Joey Carbery did well last weekend but Johnny Sexton's presence is enough to unnerve an opponent and his decision-making and courage under pressure add potency to the touring side.

They'll miss Bundee Aki's physical presence, but Robbie Henshaw is no shrinking violet and Garry Ringrose brings assurance to the edge of the defensive line where Australia enjoyed an advantage last week.

The first-choice props will blend their solid scrummaging with a capacity to do damage in the loose, while Devin Toner will aim to wreak havoc on a wobbly Australian lineout. In tandem with Niall Scannell, he'll look for a solid platform for his own side.

And then there is arguably the most critical battle of this and every Test match, the breakdown, where Dan Leavy is charged with tipping the balance back in his team's favour.

The 24-year-old has slain all before him in Europe this season, but this is a step up in class.

He'll relish the challenge of taking on a world-class operator like David Pocock and his partner in crime Michael Hooper, while his all-round energy, carrying ability and understanding with James Ryan adds an edge to Ireland's play.

He'll look to lay down a marker or two having had a week's rest.

"Dan has had a great season, he's brought great energy and a physical edge," captain Peter O'Mahony said.

"His fitness and his enthusiasm to get stuck in is infectious. It (stopping Pocock) is a very difficult thing to do, he's a quality rugby player and he's proven that for a long time.

"It's an individual battle that we have at the breakdown, whoever's there has to get there earlier and try and negate him."

The weather in Melbourne has been mixed all week and if the forecast rain arrives it will change the nature of the game. Despite the low score, last weekend was a high-tempo affair but wet weather would force the teams to tighten up and, you sense that would play into Irish hands.

Schmidt has put an emphasis on the scrum this week and will expect a response from his front-row, while Ireland will look to their lineout maul to grind down the Wallaby pack.

Dealing with Israel Folau will be a big focus and, while Jacob Stockdale's inability to train on Tuesday didn't help, Andrew Conway's aerial bravery is a big factor in his selection.

He may be giving up a foot or two to the brilliant full-back, but the Munster man won't be found wanting for effort and will hope to put him under pressure.

Ireland are likely to continue their tactic of kicking their restarts to the athletically gifted Folau in attempt to pin him down but they'll need better execution to make the strategy work.

If they can limit the influence of Folau and Pocock, they'll be well on their way but they'll also need to throw a few more punches of their own in attack and Sexton will help in that regard.

Defeat would condemn them to a long week in Sydney and a dead rubber, which would be a poor way to end a great season. They are more than capable of taking this series to a decider.

Verdict: Ireland

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