Saturday marks the 31st fixture between Ireland and Australia, the Wallabies with twenty wins to Ireland’s nine, and ominously for Ireland it would appear that Australia are beginning to move through the gears after a difficult year.
The last time these nations met was a celebrated moment in Ireland’s World Cup history, beating the Aussies 15-6 in Eden Park. That 2011 victory and a respectable recent record of two wins from five including one draw suggest that a second morale boosting autumn victory could be on the cards. It was a positive start for Schmidt against Samoa, but their victory was tempered by a realistic analysis from their ambitious new coach.
Ireland’s ball retention was below par, and their kicking from hand was inaccurate. Samoa had been gifted possession and a worrying number of opportunities to counter attack. Schmidt, correctly, highlighted the number of Samoan line breaks as an area of concern ahead of this clash. A dangerous Australian backline won’t need any second invitation to put Ireland to the sword if there’s repeat sloppiness in Ireland’s defence this Saturday.
Schmidt reshuffles his pack with Lions Sean O’Brien, Paul O’Connell and Cian Healy each returning to start after being given time to recover from their respective injuries. Jack McGrath can count himself unfortunate in making way for Healy, while Mike McCarthy steps aside for O’Connell with Devin Toner partnering the captain at lock. With Chris Henry ruled out Kevin McLaughlin is the replacement back row on the bench. Jonathan Sexton returns at 10 as expected, and Luke Marshall wins his fourth cap replacing Gordon D’Arcy in the centre.
At half back Schmidt played something of a wildcard, surprisingly opting for Eoin Reddan instead of Conor Murray. We can infer from that selection alone that Schmidt wants Ireland to play a fast game with speedy distribution from the breakdown. Joe Schmidt was quick to clarify that Murray had done little wrong against Samoa, but that starting Reddan gives the Leinster scrum-half a fair chance to put his hand up and, more broadly, an opportunity for Schmidt to ‘grow the squad’ as he put it.
On the bench Stephen Archer replaces Declan Fitzpatrick as tight head cover, while Ian Madigan and Robbie Henshaw are preferred to Paddy Jackson and David Kearney respectively.
Australia make two changes from their try-fest in Turin with Scott Fardy starting at blindside and Sekope Kepu packing down at tight head. Fardy’s selection means that Rob Simmons moves into the second row to pair up with James Horwill whilst Tatafu Polota-Nau returns from long-term absence as a replacement.
The backline remains unchanged with McKenzie reluctant to change a winning formula and break that continuity. Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Nick Cummins form as threatening a back three as you will find anywhere in either hemisphere while Genia and Cooper continue to develop their potentially match winning half back combination.
Ben Mowen skippers the side from no.8 in a pack which also includes influential former captain James Horwill and in-form Stephen Moore. Benn Robinson drops to the bench.
All Eyes On
They call him ‘the Tullow Tank’ and after a try scoring return in Ireland colours last weekend, Sean O’Brien is handed a first start of the autumn. Always a devastatingly destructive carrier, O’Brien has honed his skills as a genuine openside under Joe Schmidt at Leinster. It’s a combination of assets which make O’Brien one of the most sought after players in European rugby as the IRFU, conscious of interest from the Top 14, fight to hold on to their man. O’Brien’s contribution could go a long way to deciding the outcome for Ireland, and his battle with opposing openside Michael Hooper will be worth watching.
With two tries in Turin against Italy, ‘the Honey Badger’ Nick Cummins has already made his mark on these autumn internationals. A big physical presence with an eye for the whitewash, Cummins has all the attributes of a world class wing, and while his unusual nickname might seem a little far-fetched, the Western Force wing is serious when it comes to his rugby. He’s only been capped 10 times but looks set to make a real impact at the next RWC as part of a blossoming back three.
Head to head: Jonathan Sexton v Quade Cooper
Jonathan Sexton hasn’t played for Ireland since starting in their Six Nations defeat to England back in February. The injury that ended his Six Nations, Lions duty in the summer and non-selection last week mean that he’s missed the last six tests and Ireland have struggled without their influential playmaker. In his absence a combination of O’Gara, Jackson and Madigan have each had their turn at 10, but it remains Sexton’s shirt and his return could see the Irish backs begin to click again.
Equally, if Sexton puts Ireland deep in Australian territory that will put pressure on Wallaby fly-half Quade Cooper. Once the forgotten man of union in Australia, Ewen McKenzie has forced responsibility upon the previously erratic Cooper by handing him the vice captaincy in the hope that it encourages a more mature attitude both on and off the field. However, playing his natural game Cooper still prefers to keep the ball in hand, counter attacking at every opportunity and taking risks were others may not.
The most impressive aspect of Ireland’s performance against Samoa was the dominance exerted by their pack. John Plumtree already looks like a shrewd appointment as forwards coach with their set piece and rolling maul visibly improved. Australia will provide a sterner test, despite their apparent frailties in the scrum, but Ireland could do some damage up front as the Lions did. Australia gaining parity brings their backline into play. They’ll look to get behind Ireland’s defence with Folau and Cummins on hand to convert opportunities into tries.
With the All Blacks next up, realistically this game will make or break Ireland’s autumn series, and while defeat shouldn’t set the alarm bells ringing necessarily, a victory would set Joe Schmidt up for a free shot at his native country. There are eleven Irish starters this weekend who were also in the XV for that pool stage RWC win in 2011, so they’ve got the know-how to win. I’ll stick my neck out and say that this time next week Ireland fans will be dreaming of 3 for 3 and first ever win against New Zealand. Ireland by 3.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images