Sport Rugby

Saturday 16 December 2017

Irish face stiff task to shackle Wallaby magicians

Containing threat of Folau and enigmatic Cooper's 'bag of tricks' key to home victory

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IT was Brian O'Driscoll who best summed up Australia this week when he described today's opponents as a team who "can make you look silly".

The Wallabies might be seen as the softest touch of the southern hemisphere giants but there is a reason that Joe Schmidt and his coaching team have been talking them up all week.

The tourists may have arrived in Dublin in patchy form after a difficult season, but they are a dangerous animal, who have run in 18 tries in their last four Test matches.

Behind the scrum, they possess some of international rugby's most entertaining and effective operators, while under new coach Ewen McKenzie there are signs that there is light at the end of the tunnel they entered under Robbie Deans.

Last week's meeting with Samoa may not have lit the November touch paper, but this evening the Guinness Series is set to get the fireworks going.

Ireland under Schmidt may still be a work in progress, and the coach is working in a three-game grace period that is more about development than overnight success, but there will still be expectancy in the air as the almost 52,000 sell-out crowd make their way to Lansdowne Road this evening.

Ireland have marginally had the upper hand in this fixture since Ronan O'Gara kicked his side to victory in the rain in 2002, but that's not to say it has been one-way traffic. Each win has been hard earned.

As Ireland forwards coach John Plumtree yesterday acknowledged, a new set-up needs time to introduce their methods, but the development will take place under the floodlights at the Aviva this evening.

Schmidt's opposite number has already been through that process. It took McKenzie four games to win a Test and they have lost six of their nine games since he took over, albeit five of those coming against New Zealand and South Africa.

The Ireland coach got his first victory last week, but the next eight days represent a big step up in class.

"This is a different team, a white sheet of paper that he came in with and it is going to take time for everybody to understand totally what it's all about," Plumtree said.

"The boys are progressing nicely. They understand their roles and that's a key thing. There are basic principles we want to achieve, but there is a fair bit of detail as well. Everything will improve in time. We just need a little bit of time, but this week we have seen improvement already."

As the coaching ticket know, time is not your friend in international rugby. Windows are limited, the pressure valve is tight and results are imperative. While the victory is not all-important this evening, signs of progress are what the paying public want to see.

So, with that in mind, how do Schmidt's charges avoid being made to look silly against this ever-improving Australia team?

DOMINATE THE SET-PIECE

Ireland went well against Samoa in the tight and the Australians arrive with a set-piece that creaks on a regular basis but rarely snaps completely.

Against a team packed with threats, there is a need to dominate possession and that starts by winning your own ball and denying opponents theirs.

"Defence starts at set-piece," Plumtree said. "If we can deny them a little bit of ball and give them messy ball, then it makes it harder for them to launch. It is key."

The Irish forwards have been watching the Australian scrum closely and the key message has been their strength on their own put-in.

However, with former prop McKenzie criticising certain sides for using the set-piece as a penalty winning machine rather than a restart of the game, there is clearly a frustration in Australia around the influence the scrum can have on their games.

"They're very good on their own ball," Ireland replacement prop Stephen Archer explained, having analysed the Wallabies eight. "They have a quick strike and they are very efficient at getting their angles. We'll have to work together and really get a shove on when the ball comes in."

KEEP THE BALL AWAY

FROM ISRAEL FOLAU

The Australia full-back (left) has been playing rugby union for less than a year but he's already on his way to full-blown superstardom.

He is far from the only threat in a potent backline but the nine Lions in Ireland's starting XV know full well what he can do when given time, space or badly kicked ball.

The former rugby league star will be aided and abetted by the excellent Adam Ashley Cooper and the energetic Nick Cummins, both of whom can cause damage if given the chance.

"I think you can do it to an extent but you can't over-strategise that," Schmidt said of trying to deny Folau kicked ball. "In the end, if you're under the pump you've got to be able to get some time and space somehow and if that means giving him ball we just have to be good enough to stop him post-that."

UNSETTLE QUADE COOPER

"With the firepower we've got in the backline, we've got to make sure we use it," Wallaby captain Ben Mowen said yesterday. It is up to Ireland to deny them that chance.

Expect Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy to queue up for shots at the No 10 channel. Australia's enigmatic out-half can be masterful when given the opportunity, but Ireland have proven that he can also be got at.

He and McKenzie have developed quite a rapport and the vice captain is playing some of his best rugby, having been backed at international level by his long-time club coach.

However, he combines the brilliant with the bizarre and is also taking the kicks in Christian Lealiifano's absence, an area of the game where he is streaky rather than consistent.

Les Kiss has been working on Ireland's defensive discipline after some lapses last week and, as Plumtree knows from his time at the Sharks, Cooper (left) will exploit any weakness.

"You've certainly got to work together. He looks for opportunities and individuals who push out of the line and he obviously wants real fast ball so we have got to deny him that," the assistant coach said.

"Defensively, he can be a real handful with his partnership with Will Genia, they really understand each others' play. So that has been a big focus that week, but I guess Quade's used to hearing that.

"He's got a bag of tricks that have to be looked after and when he's playing with confidence and front-foot ball he can be a real handful."

PLAY ON THEIR OWN TERMS

There are plenty of Australian threats for Ireland to worry about, but after cutting loose in the final 20 minutes against Samoa they will also be focusing on playing cohesively with ball in hand for 80 this week.

With Johnny Sexton back in the saddle and working off his old pal Eoin Reddan's slick service, there will be opportunities. As Schmidt pointed out, Australia score lots of tries but they concede a fair few too.

Luke Marshall has the pace, power and hands to exploit a gap, while Brian O'Driscoll is the man the Wallabies still fear the most. Tommy Bowe, Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney will also be hoping to see far more of the ball than they did last week and make the most of any opportunities.

If the back-row can limit Michael Hooper's influence at the breakdown then the backline can flourish and we can start to see some of Schmidt's old Leinster moves introduced to the international arena.

STAY ON THE REF'S GOOD SIDE

O'Driscoll won't have fond memories of New Zealander Chris Pollock, who took a dim view of his breakdown work against the same opponents back in June when he refereed the first Lions Test.

His performances and interpretations will have been well watched by the video analysis team, but the string of concessions in Brisbane nearly cost the Lions and the same thing can't happen this evening if Ireland are to win.

Verdict: Ireland 23 Australia 28

Irish Independent

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