Saturday 18 August 2018

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: Return of Leavy and Ringrose the key for Ireland to hit back and take series to Sydney decider

Dan Leavy, left, and Conor Murray prepare for Ireland rugby squad training at Royal Pines Resort in Queensland, Australia. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Dan Leavy, left, and Conor Murray prepare for Ireland rugby squad training at Royal Pines Resort in Queensland, Australia. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When, two years ago, a sponsor-commissioned documentary was produced on Ireland's summer tour of South Africa the final edition almost erased the second and third Tests from the record books.

From a narrative perspective, they got the story they wanted on the opening night in Cape Town as Ireland beat the Springboks away from home for the first time, overcoming CJ Stander's red card in doing so.

The cameras followed for the rest of the tour, but when the hosts stormed back to claim the series the producers fell back on the opening game as their positive story.

There are no documentary crews on this year's tour to Australia but if there were, they'd be getting nervous.

Losing a series is no disaster, but there are ways to lose. A first Test win allows room to breathe, but the Brisbane defeat has put Ireland on the back foot and raised the spectre of Joe Schmidt's side taking a backward step at a critical juncture of their World Cup cycle.

So, the jet-skis are out the window, so to speak, as the head coach surveys the damage done to his perfect season by Australia and looks to right the wrongs.

A recall for Garry Ringrose could help open Ireland’s attacking game up further. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
A recall for Garry Ringrose could help open Ireland’s attacking game up further. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Losing the second Test would suck the life out of the tour and make for a very long and unhappy final week in Sydney. It would be a miserable way to finish such a successful season.

Nothing that happens during this three-week excursion will be fatal, but going 2-0 down would be an undeniable setback; a 3-0 loss a major disappointment.

Thankfully, it is well within Ireland's capabilities to sort out their shortcomings and overcome the challenge ahead.

Schmidt may tweak his selection plans for the week ahead and it looks increasingly like the starting XV will mirror the one that beat England at Twickenham.

It's a needs-must scenario. On this tour, there is a fine balance to be struck.

Getting high-class game-time into players like Joey Carbery is essential with Japan in mind, but so is maintaining the team's belief that they can beat any team in the world at any time.

If they win the second Test, Ireland can rotate again for the finale knowing that they have avoided the worst-case scenario.

The best-case scenario is off the table already, but the series remains winnable.

Privately, they'll have believed that a clean sweep was possible but now they are under the pump to keep the series alive by winning in Melbourne.

The Grand Slam will live forever as an achievement and when they retire the players can happily dine off it for decades.

But Schmidt and his players only have to glance over to South Africa to appreciate just how fickle sport can be.

Nobody is talking about Eddie Jones's two Six Nations titles after his side lost their fourth game on the bounce in Johannesburg.

World rankings may not matter a whole lot in the greater scheme of things, but Ireland's status as the second best team on the circuit has made them a very appetising target for an Australian team in search of their own progress.

The intensity the Wallabies brought to the first Test in Brisbane was a mark the respect they have for Ireland and the home side drew great satisfaction from ending Ireland's winning run.

Their win was built on an excellent, aggressive defensive effort, a devastating approach to the breakdown and a clever kicking and counter-attacking game.

Their set-piece is likely to improve if Ned Hannigan is brought back in on the blindside, while they will benefit from another week together at the beginning of their season.

As well as tweaking the game-plan, Schmidt is expected to roll out the heavy artillery.

Although he was shaky last weekend, Rob Kearney remains the best option to deal with the bombs and he's earned the right to have another crack off Israel Folau.

Keith Earls' ability to make it through the concussion protocols will determine his availability, but this could be a perfect opportunity to give Andrew Conway a run given his aerial prowess.

A recall for Garry Ringrose could help open Ireland's attacking game up further, while his decision-making on the edge can help plug a big gap from the first Test.

That would leave a decision between Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki who may start one of the remaining Tests each. Henshaw may pay the price for his rusty defensive display.

With Johnny Sexton expected to be restored alongside Conor Murray, the all-Leinster replacement front-row should rotate in - although Rob Herring impressed last week.

Schmidt should resist any temptation to break up the budding Iain Henderson/James Ryan axis in the second-row.

And, crucially, the return of Dan Leavy at the expense of Jordi Murphy would add a physical edge that was missing against the David Pocock-led Wallaby effort.

Tadhg Beirne might add some more breakdown capacity, but Peter O'Mahony led well last weekend and CJ Stander might just hold off Jack Conan for another week.

It makes for a formidable team, one more than capable of taking the series to Sydney.

If he can get there at 1-1, Schmidt can contemplate experimenting again.

Irish Independent

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