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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 20 March, 2019
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Wallabies battle to win hearts as Schmidt worries about their lethal attack

Michael Cheika bumped into some Munster fans during Ireland’s Grand Slam-securing game against England.

Murray Kinsella reports from Brisbane

IN KING GEORGE Square, alongside the Museum of Brisbane, there’s a hive of city-centre activity.

Tucked in between the food carts is a stall for the Brisbane Broncos, the local rugby league side. Passersby are invited to attempt to pass a ball through some targets, while a banner reads ‘Play NRL,’ suggesting that involvement in Australia’s glamorous rugby league competition is well within reach.

A couple of spaces down, the Brisbane Heat – a professional twenty20 cricket team – offer up some similar fun whereby punters can take aim at a couple of targets and potentially win some prizes.

RUGBY WALLABIES TRAINING Cheika at the Wallabies captain's run today. Source: AAP/PA Images

Both sporting clubs are keen to grab more fans in whatever way they can and in a country with as many sporting options as Australia, the battle is a fierce one.

Across town in Kelvin Grove State College, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika is on stage in front of a few hundred of the school’s students, trying to convince them that the Australian rugby union team is all about them.

“When we play Ireland on Saturday here in Brisbane, we’re representing all of you, we’re representing all of your families and friends,” says Cheika, just after naming his starting team to take on Joe Schmidt’s tourists.

It’s a rather different setting for a post-team naming press conference and before Cheika fields questions from the media, he has to face a Q&A with the Brisbane schoolkids in front of him.

“Do you support Queensland or New South Wales?” asks the first brave interrogator, alluding the to ferocious State of Origin rivalry, in which Wednesday’s Game One saw NSW start the latest series in winning fashion.

“Do you get stressed when you have to face the All Blacks?” is the next question.

“Do you ever lose the plot in the coaching box?”

“Who’s your favourite player?” [David Campese, for the record].

Cheika is at ease and totally charming in dealing with some unexpectedly tough queries, this visit to Kelvin Grove State College just the latest element of the Wallabies’ constant fight to convince Australians to show support for rugby union.

Though the State of Origin and other sporting events have grabbed the attention this week, there will be more than 45,000 people at Suncorp Stadium tomorrow as Ireland look to deal a blow to the Wallabies’ hopes of winning the hearts of the locals.

RUGBY WALLABIES SCHOOL VISIT Wallabies hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa at Kelvin Grove State College. Source: AAP/PA Images

When Cheika descends from the stage to chat to the visiting Irish journalists, he is equally as comfortable in outlining the challenge ahead.

“It’s funny, I was sitting in Twickenham watching the game against England [in March] and I had my hat down and everything, there was Irish people everywhere,” says the Wallabies coach.

“There were these chaps from Munster next to me, drinking beers and having a great time, right? And when they worked out who I was afterwards, they were into me and having a great time.

“After the whistle, I said: ‘Aw, you chaps will be favourites coming down to Australia after that’ and they were like: ‘Don’t be saying that, no way, we can’t be favourites!’”

Cheika’s Irish accent is a little rusty, in truth, but the story brings a few more laughs before he continues.

“That’s what’s different, this Ireland team has got a lot more self-belief around coming here and will believe that they’ll be able to do it.

“For us, we’re looking to become a great team together and show the opposition what we’ve got as well.”

Ireland head coach Schmidt certainly believes the Wallabies have ‘got’ plenty and, back across ‘Brisvegas’, he laughs when Cheika’s assertion that this is the best Irish team in history is put to him.

Schmidt, typically, is keen to point out that Australia have major threats across the park.

“I think it’s their athletic profile and I think it’s their ability to play off turnover ball, their ability to counter-attack with the speed and the deft touches that they have,” said Schmidt in explaining why he feels Australia are second only to the All Blacks as an attacking team.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt is wary of the Wallabies' attack. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s very seldom that Isreal Folau is taken in a one-man tackle and if he is, his hands are free every time, and they run such great lines off the ball carrier to allow them to pierce quickly through defences.

“I think Bernard Foley mixes the game up so well. As soon as you think, ‘We’ll slam the door shut on their running threats,’ there’s a crosskick where Israel Folau is climbing over people.’

“There’s a deft little grubber kick into the corner or just through the defensive line, or he shows and goes himself, or they bring ball-playing forwards into it. I saw Sekope Kepu play as a young kid in New Zealand, and he could have played in the backs skill-wise.”

“Michael Hooper gets into those wide channels and he’s got some acceleration, and I’ve no doubt we’ll see Caleb Timu playing as a second or a third pair of hands sometimes, running a fairly hard line that is hard to contain.

“So it’s going to be a really good challenge for our guys to contain that sort of threat.”

The Wallabies have been inconsistent since their impressive charge into the 2015 World Cup final, although they have underlined all week that these have been transitional years.

Nonetheless, Cheika isn’t simply accepting that Grand Slam champions Ireland are going to overcome the Wallabies on Australian soil.

“This is Test footy, you’ve got to win, every game,” said Cheika of the Wallabies’ targets. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve done a lot of development. We’ve had 26, 27 debutants and I’d say half of our senior group of 20 core players, 10 of those guys would have debuted since 2016 or 2017.

“We’ve done this on purpose and we’ve taken some risks in that way because you’re always playing against great opposition; England, Ireland, New Zealand, it’s on every week.

“So to be able to prepare that, now I think we can start narrowing in on what our group is, getting them the games and you’ll see this year there’ll be significantly less debutants.

“Every time we run out in that gold jersey we’re representing Australia and that means that the country is waking up the next day feeling how well we’ve performed, my own kids included.

“So that demands maximum performance and with that I believe we can win.”

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Murray Kinsella

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