THE TABLE IS set. The knives are out.
It’s seven days since Ireland had their fill against Samoa in Joe Schmidt’s first outing as an international head coach, seven days since he looked forward to two main courses after that 40 – 9 appetiser.
This evening (17.45) Ireland face Australia and, despite Schmidt giving the All Blacks an equal importance, this is the big one in his November honeymoon period.
Of the three opponents this month, Australia represent the most accurate barometer of how well Ireland are performing.
All on these shores built Samoa’s reputation up before dismissing them again once Dave Kearney had dotted down two tries. We’ve never beaten New Zealand while wearing green and to make the world champions end their (so far) undefeated 2013 with a loss would be an incredible achievement.
Australia however, are a team we can set our watches by. The Wallabies are still smarting from their final Test capitulation to the Lions and new coach Ewen McKenzie has had just three wins to cling to as he attempts to revive and re-energise the two-time World Cup winners in the hope of lifting a third in Britain.
Crucially, Schmidt is able to recall Paul O’Connell as captain and the lock will start together with Brian O’Driscoll for the first time since the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Wales in Wellington. Indeed, both coaches have made changes after impressive wins. Ireland’s debutant man-of-the-match, Jack McGrath, is shelved in favour of Cian Healy and he will scrummage against Sekope Kepu who McKenzie has named in place of Ben Alexander.
The performances of Healy and Sean O’Brien in the last meeting between these sides was a crucial factor in negating Australia’s attacking threat. Both potent ball-carriers bolster O’Connell’s pack, but it’s the flanker’s breakdown work which has caught McKenzie’s eye the most.
“Between him and [Rory] Best they’ve got some really good operators in terms of strangling ball carriers. If you get the body position wrong they’re pretty good at tying you up and forcing a turnover.
“They do it a different way and it’s quite effective so we’ve got to be quite accurate about that side of it. We recognise it’s a key area of the game.”
Behind the scrum, Jonathan Sexton will attempt to orchestrate the Irish back-line for the first time since February’s home defeat to England. Schmidt’s big selection call was to install Eoin Reddan as his scrum-half, but Sexton will have an unfamiliar partner stepping in between him and Brian O’Driscoll as Luke Marshall wins his fourth cap, his first outside Sexton.
Though Australia’s obvious danger man is fullback Israel Folau, it’s set to be an intriguing contest in that midfield area as Australia look to combine the physical specimen of Tevita Kuridrani with the craft of Matt Toomua, as if the creativity of Quade Cooper and Will Genia wasn’t enough
While Ireland’s strengthened starting XV has clearly weakened the replacements bench, the presence of Conor Murray gives Schmidt a class option whenever he chooses to change pace or help close the game out. It’s not a role readily associated with the Munster man, but he as demonstrated its effectiveness in his cameo role for the Lions and then against Leinster already this year.
“Everyone will be talking about Ireland putting pressure on us,” McKenzie adds, “but we’ll try and do the same to them. We’ve got some good guys and we can strangle and steal ball at the breakdown.
“Even their bench is set up to maintain the rage over 80 minutes, but Liam Gill is a genuine (openside) on the ball, he will come into the game to keep the pressure on too.”
Meetings between these sides are rarely one sided and with both coaches renowned for their attacking style of rugby this evening’s feast at the Aviva Stadium is a mouthwatering prospect.
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Marshall, Fergus McFadden; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell (c); Peter O’Mahony, Ssean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Steven Archer, Mike McCarthy, Kevin McLaughlin, Conor Murray, Ian Madigan, Robbie Henshaw.
Australia: Israel Folau; Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Toomua, Nick Cummins; Quade Cooper, Will Genia; James Slipper, Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu; Rob Simmons, James Horwill; Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper, Ben Mowen (c).
Replacements: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson, Paddy Ryan, Sitaleki Timani, Liam Gill, Nic White, Christian Leal’ifano, Joe Tomane.