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Ireland settle into Paradise as Sexton and O'Mahony prepare to step up

With Rory Best missing, the two vice-captains will fill the leadership mantle in Australia.

Murray Kinsella reports from Surfers Paradise

IN TERMS OF venues to allow their players to acclimatise and shake off the jet lag after arriving in Australia on Saturday, Ireland could have done a lot worse than Surfers Paradise.

Situated on the Gold Coast, about an hour’s drive south of Brisbane, the seaside resort is relatively quiet at this time of Australia’s winter and that serves Ireland’s purposes perfectly.

Peter O’Mahony out jet skiing Peter O'Mahony jet-skis at Surfers Paradise on Australia's Gold Coast. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Joe Schmidt’s squad will move into Brisbane on Thursday ahead of the this weekend’s opening Test against the Wallabies at Suncorp Stadium, but their first few days in Queensland have been about settling in comfortably.

A light gym session on Sunday helped the players to wake their bodies up after the long-haul flights, before a walk-through session at Bond University’s ‘Bullshark Cage’ – a high-performance training centre saw – Schmidt setting the tone for the week ahead.

Monday was a down day for the players and most took advantage by exploring the local area, with various groups splitting off to go jet-skiing, golfing or visiting local theme parks.

Their first pitch session takes place on Tuesday afternoon and Ireland say they expect all 32 of their squad to take part. The likes of Robbie Henshaw, Iain Henderson and Bundee Aki will have to prove their fitness after recent injury issues but Ireland look to be in good shape before the first Test.

One man who didn’t travel with Schmidt’s squad is captain Rory Best, whose hamstring injury ruled him out at a late stage.

The loss of a captain could potentially derail some teams but Ireland appear to be relatively relaxed about dealing with the setback.

Munster man Niall Scannell took Best’s place in the squad, Sean Cronin has been in superb form for Leinster this season and Ulster’s Rob Herring has also been playing well and can count Schmidt as being firmly among his fans.

Bundee Aki Bundee Aki at Ireland's gym session on Sunday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think it’s a good opportunity for the three guys going as hookers now,” said Schmidt before Ireland departed for Australia.

“For probably the last number of years, the understudy of Bestie has fluctuated a little bit. It’s a good opportunity for all three of them to vie for the spot. That’s a positive.”

With only 10 of his 61 caps having come in the number two shirt for Ireland, Cronin will be bursting with excitement to get a chance to start for Ireland, but Herring’s toughness shouldn’t be discounted.

Scannell hasn’t been quite as impactful for Munster this season as in the past, although he is still only 26 and looks a fine bet to be Ireland’s starting hooker in the longer-term.

Whatever about losing Best’s vicious rucking, hard scrummaging and dogged work-rate, his absence as Ireland’s captain poses an interesting challenge, particularly with the Ulsterman having looked so at ease in dealing with referees in recent times.

Vice-captains Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony will step up to fill his shoes and the comfort for Schmidt is that both players have proven leadership credentials, even if Sexton has been named as a captain far less than O’Mahony.

It depends on what team Schmidt actually selects for Saturday as to who will wear the metaphorical armband, with both Sexton and O’Mahony having filled in as captain previously when Best has been replaced during games.

O’Mahony led Ireland on their 2013 North America tour and has vast experience as Munster’s leader, while Sexton has clearly been a huge influence on both his country and Leinster whenever he has been on the pitch.

Conor Murray out jet skiing Conor Murray out for a spin on the jet-ski in Surfers Paradise. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Indeed, there must be an ever-so-slight concern for Best, who will be 36 by the time next year’s World Cup rolls around, about what happens next if Sexton and/or O’Mahony lead Ireland to a series success in Australia and one of the three hookers excels.

Best has a glittering CV as Ireland’s captain – a Grand Slam, a first-ever win in South Africa and the historic 2016 victory over the All Blacks – but rugby can be such a ruthless game at times.

That said, it could be the case that Ireland greatly miss Best’s calm and experienced influence, as well as his pure aggression on the pitch, and his absence makes Schmidt grow all the fonder about the Ulster hooker’s importance to his squad.

While Schmidt ponders the Ireland captaincy, the Wallabies have had a relaxed start to the week in their team base in Brisbane city centre.

Their major concern is in the hooker position after expected starter Jordan Uelese was injured last weekend while playing for the Melbourne Rebels, leaving Michael Cheika with two uncapped players to choose from in Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Folau Faingaa.

Schmidt’s own dilemma at hooker looks a lot more enviable, with three strong options to choose from, as Ireland look to ensure that Brisbane proves to be another paradise on Saturday night.

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Murray Kinsella

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