Tuesday 24 April 2018

Tony Ward: Time to roll out the big guns

Schmidt must forget All Blacks and pick best side to take on buoyant Aussies

Leading lights Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy must join Jamie Heaslip in Ireland’s starting team for the clash with Australia
Leading lights Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy must join Jamie Heaslip in Ireland’s starting team for the clash with Australia

It might seem a twisted kind of logic, but the best result of last weekend's inter-hemisphere internationals from an Irish perspective came not at Lansdowne Road but at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin.

Australia's seven-try, 50-20 thumping of an Italian side that turned us over back in March serves Joe Schmidt and Irish rugby well ahead of Saturday's clash.

The Wallabies' lacklustre defeat at Twickenham a week earlier gave the impression that here was a 'big three' southern hemisphere scalp there for the taking.

It certainly can be taken, but despite a highly promising second half from Ireland against Samoa, Australia's performance in Italy was a timely reminder as to just how potent this emerging Wallaby side can be.

The likes of Israel Folau (what a talent – if you have yet to see him play, you're in for a treat), Adam Ashley-Cooper, Michael Hooper, Ben Mowen, Will Genia and Quade Cooper are all world-class, or at least potentially so. Not too many Irish names trip off the tongue in a similar vein.


Still, this is by some distance a less daunting challenge than the one facing Schmidt's men eight days later against the All Blacks.

In ranking terms, New Zealand, South Africa and England make up the top three, with Australia fourth. Realistically, the All Blacks and the Springboks are way out in front, with the rest trailing some distance behind.

The manner of Ireland's victory over Samoa was anything but perfect, but just getting the win was paramount.

To post a record score in the fixture, with five unanswered tries, was a bonus, but in the cold light of day everyone involved is sensible enough to separate the euphoria of the moment from reality.

There were some real positives to build on – or to borrow from top economist and informed rugby fan Eddie Hobbs, "very definite green shoots of recovery".

Ireland under Schmidt are much the same as Australia under their new coach Ewen McKenzie – a squad in transition and a work in progress.

Despite playing away from home, the pressure is greater in the gold corner than green.

That said, I'm sure Schmidt, Les Kiss, John Plumtree et al have targeted this as the 'can win' game to make the autumn series a success, irrespective of the result against New Zealand.

It certainly won't be easy, especially now that an under-fire Wallaby squad will pitch up at the Aviva with their confidence buoyed significantly by their comprehensive win over the Azzurri.

For Ireland, the first objective has been achieved – and despite a ragged and disjointed first half, with quite a bit to spare in the end.

On the casualty front, a hamstring tear has ruled out Chris Henry for the remaining games, while Tommy Bowe is a doubt with a bruised calf.

If he is deemed fit, then Bowe's inclusion will be automatic, whereas a fit Henry's involvement would realistically have been off the bench.

Schmidt will certainly name his best available side, even with the All Blacks looming.

Unlike Samoa, there is no room for manoeuvre for the Australian challenge.

Rob Kearney will be at full-back, flanked by Bowe – fitness permitting – and Fergus McFadden on the wings, although the case for Dave Kearney is strong, particularly with Keith Earls again ruled out.

In the centre Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll should be reunited alongside Johnny Sexton.

This is not a game for experimentation, so if that means an all-Leinster backline from No 10 out, with the exception of one wing, then so be it.


At scrum-half Conor Murray had a quiet but efficient hour and should start again despite Eoin Reddan's dynamic final-quarter input. By then the groundwork had been laid.

Up front, Cian Healy should and I suspect will come in at loosehead, where Leinster colleague Jack McGrath has certainly made his mark as a ready-made replacement in waiting.

Ulster's Rory Best and Leinster's Mike Ross will make up a formidable Irish front-row from whom much will be expected against James Slipper, Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander.

If we can win that essential scrum battle then everything is on.

If Bowe is passed fit, the second-row will be the only area in need of address and might lead to the burning of some midnight oil.

Devin Toner did his cause no harm whatsoever with an efficient 80 minutes against the islanders but for sure it will be Paul O'Connell wearing No 5, along with captaining the side, on Saturday.

Mike McCarthy is gradually coming back to full fitness and should line out alongside the Munster icon.

The back-row picks itself, with Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip a combination with the potential to match any unit anywhere – and that assertion will be thoroughly tested over the next two weekends.

McGrath and Toner would then join Sean Cronin, Declan Fitzpatrick and Reddan on the bench, leaving it a call between Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson for back-up out-half and between Madigan, Earls and Kearney for utility cover, while Kevin McLaughlin would appear to offer the best skill-set to cover the back and second-rows in an emergency.

PS The Ireland police team overcame their English counterparts 19-10 at the Galway Sportsground last weekend in the Movember 'Clash of the Tache' match in aid of the men's health awareness initiative.

The Ireland police team is made up of serving police officers from An Garda Siochana and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), with players on both sides raising funds as well as highlighting issues such as prostate and testicular cancer and mental health.

Well done to all concerned.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport