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Ireland are on the cusp of an epic run as they head Down Under

Schmidt knows a series win for Ireland would be a major landmark on road to Japan

It is a measure of Irish rugby's game management system that a near full-strength squad pitched up on the Gold Coast over the weekend in readiness for the three-Test series against Australia which starts in Brisbane next Saturday.

It's also a measure of the players' own desires that, by all accounts, when Joe Schmidt sounded them out towards the end of a long, post-Lions, high pressure and high achieving season, not one of them was of the remotest mind to take a rest.

So it is that all bar the injured Rory Best of the 23 players on duty in the Grand Slam-sealing win in Twickenham will tour along with ten others in the squad. Indeed, in stark contrast to their home union rivals, all bar Best, Sean O'Brien and the now retired Jared Payne of Ireland's 11 Lions from last summer will again be touring over the next three weeks.

All of this also demonstrates that no player dare risk affording someone else an opportunity to nail down a place in the squad in their absence.

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Even Best would not be human if he didn't watch events unfold over the next three weeks a tad apprehensively, considering how the hookers might fare and how Johnny Sexton and Peter O'Mahony might lead the squad in his absence.

By any stretch of the imagination, Irish rugby is in credit after a season that has yielded that Grand Slam and an historic European Champions Cup/Guinness Pro14 double for Leinster, while Munster also reached the semi-finals of both competitions.

Most of all though, this tour is the last by an Irish side before the 2019 World Cup in 15 months’ time, and Schmidt’s 32-man squad selection – only one more than permitted in Japan – suggests he and the rest of the Irish management are using this as something of a dry run for that four-yearly global event.

“We want to make sure this tour is another building block for what comes in the future. The big tournament we play in on an annual basis is the Six Nations and we’re going to have a big target on our forehead for that next year and then obviously beyond that the really big tournament which follows in September/October is the World Cup.

“We don’t have too many options to trial things between now and then. This will be an opportunity to do some of that. It’s going to be incredibly tough and that’s when you find out about players in those situations; how do they cope? What growth can we get out this tour to make sure that then we’re on a slightly stronger footing when it comes to playing Italy in Chicago?

“I’d never put a number on anything because I’m probably number-averse a little bit but I tell you one number which is pretty impressive, 23-18, the last time they [Australia] played in the SunCorp Stadium against the All Blacks. I think they’re probably the only team since we beat them in Chicago to have beaten the All Blacks. That’s a feather in their cap.

Longer divide

“Watching that game back a couple of times, their ability to turn defence into attack, their ability to attack through multiple phases at real tempo with athletes that are very difficult to contain, you need to be numbered up incredibly well so, with all those challenges, I think there’s a real excitement within the group at trying to make sure we can foot it with some of what they deliver.”

Yet winning a series Down Under would bridge an even longer divide given Ireland have not won a Test series against one of the three Southern Hemisphere superpowers since the 2-0 win over the Wallabies in Australia in 1979.

To put the task ahead further into perspective, Ireland have lost their subsequent ten matches against the Wallabies in Australia. Allowing for the 2011 World Cup win over Australia in Eden Park, since 1979, Ireland have won only one game out of 30 away to the three Southern Hemisphere countries since 1979, losing 11 in New Zealand and eight of nine in South Africa, the exception being the first Test win with 14 men in Cape Town two summers ago. Even then the Springboks came back to win the series.

Ireland do have a decent home record against Australia, but having lost 32-15 to the Wallabies at the Aviva Stadium in Joe Schmidt’s second game in charge, they have won the ensuing two, but only by 26-23 and 27-24 in near identikit, rollercoaster fashion.

When Clive Woodward took a full-strength squad on a two-match tour of Australia and New Zealand in 2003, he was widely questioned for doing so. However, augmenting their Grand Slam earlier that year by winning those two Tests proved a hugely significant landmark en route to winning the World Cup.

“It’s all important but it’s all relative,” said Schmidt when that English example was put to him. “Going into that France game at the last World Cup, I thought we were in really good shape, you can be destabilised so quickly.

"The key thing for Clive was they won in 2003 but they kept that side together, and that side went through to the World Cup later in the year and went on to do a great job. Like, we lost Rory and there's a few things that we put in place that revolve around Rory because he has a certain amount of gravitas in the group. You feel a little bit destabilised as a result of that but that's only one guy, even though it's late in the day. But what a fantastic opportunity for Niall Scannell, that's the way we'd look at it.

“Whatever happens in Australia, I think we can get growth out of it. And if it is that someone gets shown that they need to learn more, that they need to understand more, that’s a good investment for us. We only get 12 shots at this a year and I suppose the last 12 have gone particularly well results-wise and you’d love that to continue but there’s a greater goal in mind.

“It wouldn’t be often I’d say that but at the same time what’s right in front of our nose is going to be incredibly tough. Once we land there, that greater goal goes out the window. It will be all about what we can achieve in Suncorp.”

Impressive sum

Although the Waratahs finally ended a 40-game winless run for Australian sides against New Zealand franchises in Super Rugby with their 41-12 win over the Highlanders in Sydney’s Allianz Stadium three weeks ago, once again their four franchises have not been tearing it up this year.

However, Schmidt assuredly has a point when saying this is not necessarily a barometer of Michael Cheika’s Wallabies, where the individual parts still add up to an impressive sum.

“I was talking to a Tier One coach recently who said that there is a whole different flavour to the Wallabies, as opposed to their Super Rugby sides. And when you look the sum of the parts once they do come together, the actual parts are fantastic. It’s probably just the depth that they have to spread amongst those teams, and obviously part of the cost there was the Western Force and that created a bit of, I suppose, a few disputes and a little bit of tension in Australian rugby, but now that they’ve consolidated into those four teams.

"I had a good couple of hours with Brad Thorn, just before the Super Rugby, a guy I've got immense respect for, and the Reds are four wins and eight losses I think but they've had some super efforts so far and kids like Rodda emerging there.

“I think they’ve got some really impressive players there. They’ve got a very young squad. That investment in them is going to be positive going forward but at the same time they’ve got a spine of real experience. I think 11 of that squad that’s been named played in the World Cup final. You don’t suddenly get bad and become incapable of playing at a really, really high level if you’ve got that sort of quality about you.”

England did win a Test series 3-0 in Australia two years ago when Eddie Jones’s crew were in their all-conquering pomp, but even then were fully extended in all three matches.

Extending Ireland’s 12-match winning run to 15 would be a near epic achievement and, potentially therefore, could leave them with a shot at equalling or even bettering the world record runs of 18 successive Test wins achieved by the All Blacks and England, both of which Ireland brought to an end in bookending the 2016-17 season.

That would bring its own baggage, but in truth a 2-1 series win would be a significant landmark on the road to Japan next year.

IRELAND SQUAD

FORWARDS (18)

Niall Scannell (Banbridge/Munster) 7 caps

Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets) uncapped

Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster) 7 caps

Seán Cronin (St Mary’s College/Leinster) 61 caps

Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster) 23 caps

Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster) 78 caps

Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster) 38 caps

Rob Herring (Ballynahinch/Ulster) 3 caps

Dan Leavy (UCD/Leinster) 9 caps

Jack McGrath (St Mary’s College/Leinster) 47 caps

Jordi Murphy (Lansdowne/Leinster) 20 caps

Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster) 47 caps

Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster) 7 caps

Quinn Roux (Galwegians/Connacht) 5 caps

James Ryan (UCD/Leinster) 8 caps

John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster) 13 caps

CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster) 23 caps

Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster) 58 caps

BACKS (14)

Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht) 7 caps

Ross Byrne (UCD/Leinster) uncapped

Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Leinster) 10 caps

Andrew Conway (Garryowen/Munster) 6 caps

John Cooney (Terenure College RFC/Ulster) 1 cap

Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster) 67 caps

Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster) 33 caps

Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster) 83 caps

Jordan Larmour (St Mary's College/Leinster) 3 caps

Kieran Marmion (Corinthians/Connacht) 21 caps

Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster) 64 caps

Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster) 13 caps

Johnny Sexton (St Mary’s College/Leinster) 73 caps

Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahnch/Ulster) 9 caps

SCHEDULE:

First Test – June 9th

Suncorp stadium in Brisbane

Kick-off 11am (8pm local time)

Second Test – June 16th

Melbourne’s AAMI Park

Kick-off 11am (8pm local time)

Third Test – June 23rd

Allianz stadium in Sydney

Kick-off 11am (8pm local time)