In-form Australia a daunting assignment for drained Ireland
Return of Ultan Dillane and Keith Earls a welcome boost for coach Joe Schmidt
Simon Easterby: “We always knew this game was going to be a huge game, for many reasons.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Travelling to Chicago and beating the all-powerful All Blacks for the first time in 111 years was historic.
Even blooding eight new caps in running up 50 points against Canada was invigorating, before the demands of facing the All Blacks a second time proved disappointing and draining.
Viewed in that light, Saturday’s encounter with the improving Wallabies looks, emotionally and mentally as well as physically, to be Ireland’s most difficult match of the November window. In addition it will have ramifications that could linger until the next World Cup.
Michael Cheika is building something again, as he does. Having reached the World Cup final just over a year ago, the Wallabies began the season with five straight defeats, but they were against the world’s top two sides, England and New Zealand.
There have been two more defeats, away to South Africa and to New Zealand, but Australia arrive in Dublin having won six of their last eight, all of them against sides in the world’s top nine.
“They’ve been disappointed in their Rugby Championship results. They’ve come over here, they haven’t changed too much, but they’re playing a brand of rugby which suits their skill set, and that makes them a dangerous team.”
These Wallabies tick a lot of boxes, but as befits a team of Cheika’s, their most marked improvement has perhaps been their set-piece, as evidenced by their mauling penalty try with a largely second-string pack in Paris last Saturday night.
“Their set-piece, in particular, has improved massively over the last 12 months,” said Easterby. “They maul well. They scrum well. They’ve been pretty consistent in their front row in what they’ve selected, apart from last weekend when they had a few new guys. The ten games before that, they kept the same front row starting,” added Easterby in reference to the Scott Sio-Stephen Moore-Sekope Kepu triumvirate.
“The locks have been reasonably consistent. They’ve lost [Adam] Coleman but they’ve got [Rory] Arnold and [Rob] Simmons and Dean Mumm, who have all been around. Then, their back row is quality as well. They are a pretty formidable outfit.”
While Ireland have risen to fourth in the World Rugby rankings, Australia remain third. The draw for the pool stages of the 2019 World Cup will be made after the Six Nations in May, when the leading four in the rankings will be the top four seeds, prior to which Australia only have one more match after this weekend (against England on Saturday week).
“Look, I suppose it’s in the background,” said Easterby. “That is there and it’s always going to be there until May 10th, I think, when they decide on the [World Cup seeding] positions. Australia are one of a number of teams jostling for one of those positions, whether it be top four, or staying in the top eight.”
“So, yeah, it has a bearing but it’s not in the forefront of our minds because it’s more important that we get a performance and we get all our stuff right, and then hopefully on the back of that, those things will look after themselves.”
Ruled outJohnny SextonRobbie HenshawRob Kearney
With Paddy Jackson likely to step in for Sexton again, it seems like one of his Ulster team-mates, Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding (who was added to the squad this week along with the uncapped Rory Scannell), will most likely fill in for Henshaw.
Easterby said Stander and Kearney were thus far fulfilling their return to play protocols. If Stander is ruled out, O’Mahony would appear to be a readymade replacement. Were Kearney ruled out, either Simon Zebo or Jared Payne would presumably start at fullback, with Garry Ringrose an option at outside centre.
But the vibes regarding Stander and Kearney appear positive.
Zebo has also been restricted to modified training, but while Joe Schmidt prefers to pick those who have been running with the team all week, Easterby intimated this is not such an unwritten rule in the final week of a mini-campaign such as this.
“It is, I suppose, week four of a series and based on what happened at the weekend, I think probably you have to take it in a little bit of context in terms of making sure that, yes, we get as many of the players we see will be selected on the weekend fit, and training and preparing. It is sometimes difficult when you have a lot of players who have bumps and are banged up and have certain issues. It is not always possible to get that spot on.”