MUCH COULD CHANGE over the next fortnight, with injuries an ever-present risk, but Joe Schmidt must be feeling enthusiastic about Ireland’s prospects for their three-Test series in Australia next month.
With a Grand Slam in the bag already this season and a Leinster team including many Ireland internationals having secured the Champions Cup last weekend, things are looking rosy for Irish rugby.
Robbie Henshaw’s knee injury is a cause for concern for Schmidt ahead of the tour, of course, and he will be hoping that this weekend’s Leinster v Munster Pro14 semi-final and the final a week later don’t claim any victims.
But with Australian teams struggling in Super Rugby again and the negative narrative around rugby Down Under continuing this year, Ireland look well placed to have a good tilt at a series success in June.
Ireland take on Michael Cheika’s Wallabies across three weekends, beginning in Brisbane on Saturday 9 June, before trips to Melbourne and Sydney.
While playing the Wallabies has so often felt like a daunting challenge in the past – and it certainly shouldn’t be underestimated – there will be confidence in the Irish group that travels.
On the other side of the coin, the pessimism in Australian rugby right now seems to be as widespread as it has ever been.
That’s partly on account of the miserable time the Aussie Super Rugby teams are enduring.
Their combined record against New Zealand sides has extended out to 39 consecutive defeats, while the Queensland Reds’ loss away to Japan’s Sunwolves last weekend has only added to the negative vibes.
Dave Wessels, who was linked with Munster before Johann van Graan signed, has brought about improvement at the Rebels in Melbourne but they are struggling in defence, with 44 tries conceded in 11 games.
The Waratahs appear to be regressing under Daryl Gibson, last weekend’s collapse against the Crusaders to lose on a 31-29 scoreline, having led 29-0 at one stage in the first-half, underlining their issues.
The Brumbies have been hit severely by the departure of players like Scott Fardy and other top internationals in recent seasons, while new head coach Brad Thorn is only really getting to grips with the Reds.
There was some relief for Cheika when Rebels scrum-half Will Genia’s knee injury earlier this month proved not to be quite as serious as initially feared, and the experienced halfback may be fit to face Ireland.
But the Wallabies look to have lost Waratahs flanker Ned Hanigan for the first Test at least after a knee injury, while experienced hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau is set to be unavailable after his stint with Leicester Tigers.
The controversy around Isreal Folau’s homophobic comments certainly hasn’t helped to lift the mood amongst many of Australian rugby fans, although Cheika will have been pleased to see the fullback show his attacking qualities at times in his two recent games since returning from a hamstring issue.
There is a sense that the Wallabies and Australian rugby need this Ireland series – the Grand Slam winners coming to town should generate genuine excitement for the first time in too long.
Ireland were last in Australia during a summer tour in 2010, although only for one Test [a 22-15 win for the Wallabies] after they had been to New Zealand.
Cheika will also have some belief that he and assistant coaches Stephen Larkham and Nathan Grey can coax their Super Rugby players into far better performances than they have delivered with their franchises.
The Wallabies didn’t have a great November last year, losing to England and Scotland after winning against the Welsh, but it’s worth remembering that they beat the All Blacks 23-18 in the Bledisloe Cup in October.
Looking back to the 2017 Rugby Championship, Cheika’s men managed only two wins in six, but Schmidt certainly won’t be writing them off.
That’s why the Ireland boss will name a strong squad when he announces his touring party next week, with the expectation being that he will call on around 32 players.
There have been suggestions that the likes of Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong might benefit from a rest this summer but the players themselves will be as keen as ever to travel, something Sexton underlined soon after the Six Nations.
There is always excitement around an Ireland squad-naming and younger players like Jordan Larmour will be hoping the tour can provide them with further opportunities to get a feel for Test rugby.
Whether the uncapped Tadhg Beirne is involved after a heavy workload with Scarlets this season remains to be seen, while previous fringe players such as Jack O’Donoghue and Rory Scannell have surely impressed Schmidt in recent months.
The issue of Ireland’s third out-half remains of interest too – does Ian Keatley tour or will Joe Schmidt hand an opportunity to Ross Byrne after a season in which he has made 18 starts for Leinster and played with increasing confidence?
Though injuries will keep Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier, Chris Farrell and possibly Henshaw out of the tour, the bulk of the Grand Slam winners will be back and Ireland must be targetting a series success in Australia.
- This article was updated at 3.54pm to correct ‘Chieka’ to ‘Cheika’.
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