Murray Kinsella reports from Sydney
TODAY’S SERIES DECIDER between Ireland and the Wallabies at Allianz Stadium will be the last international rugby match played at the stadium and it looks like the Sydney venue will get a rip-roaring final Test match.
The stadium will be knocked down next year ahead of a rebuild that will take at least three years but today should see it bid goodbye to Test rugby in style, with a record capacity crowd of 45,500 expected [KO 11.05am Irish time, Sky Sports].
Two of the best teams in the world, a lovely sunny winter’s day forecast, the series tied at 1-1 coming into the final Test after two sensational games full of thrilling rugby – there is no reason to stay away.
For the Wallabies, a win today would tee them up superbly for the Rugby Championship, which starts in August with clashes at home and away to the All Blacks.
For Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, series success in Sydney would copperfasten the 2017/18 campaign as arguably the best season in Irish rugby history, following as it does a November clean sweep and the Grand Slam.
“That would be an unequivocal yes,” said Schmidt yesterday when asked if Ireland will need their best performance of the season in this decisive third Test against the Wallabies.
Despite losing front-liners Garry Ringrose, Dan Leavy and Iain Henderson to injury, as well as probable starter Andrew Conway, Ireland are four-point favourites to wrap up their first series success on Australian soil since 1979.
The tactical battles in this game should be riveting, particularly with Ireland having kept Wallabies fullback Israel Folau so quiet last weekend.
“It was actually more on our terms, we didn’t kick well enough to allow him to get into a good position on the field,” said Wallabies captain Michael Hooper.
“Obviously, Ireland are going to try and bring ways to get Israel out of the game but I think we can involve him and make those contests a bit more skewed towards his skillsets than we did last week.”
Hooper and David Pocock will be a danger to Ireland’s possession again and the selection of an odd-looking Irish back row that features Peter O’Mahony at openside, CJ Stander on the blindside and Jack Conan at number eight will mean a lack of familiarity.
O’Mahony showed his ability as a turnover specialist last weekend, while the attacking breakdown is always a collective duty across the entire Ireland team – no matter who the opposition jackals are.
“To be fair, every rugby game nowadays is won and lost in the breakdown area,” said O’Mahony.
“When you add in guys like Pocock and Hooper, it probably ramps it up a little bit more, the quality they add and guys like [Tolu] Latu and [Brandon] Paenga-Amosa coming in, they go hard at the ball.”
The Wallabies have also changed their back row, with Caleb Timu dropped, Lukhan Tui coming in at blindside flanker and David Pocock moving to number eight.
“Poey will play pretty similar,” said Hooper. “Our back row as far as me and him will function relatively the same as it has been.
“A taller body, a big body in Lukhan coming in – I think he has been outstanding off the bench in his appearances so far. He’s really hungry to come out and make a statement here.”
O’Mahony cited the danger the Wallabies’ width and pace in attack will pose again, after Michael Cheika’s side scored three tries last weekend with limited possession.
The Australian boss is renowned as having an attacking philosophy and though his side kicked heavily in the first Test, he is backing them to run the ball dangerously in Sydney.
“You can’t win finals without scoring tries and playing footy, I’m a true believer in that,” said Cheika.
“They did well last week to restrict us from doing that and we’ll be looking to try and open up this week. I think we have in all the games, with a bit more success in others, but the last thing you do when the finals come is shrink – you want to go out there and play.”
Ireland were better in many of the physical exchanges last weekend, after the Wallabies had edged that battle in the first Test.
One of the reasons for Ireland’s physical superiority in Melbourne was their technical excellence around the collisions, including their extensive use of the latch – a support player binding onto the carrier before or during a tackle.
“They’re always going to bring physicality,” said Cheika. They do that thing where they get the two players connected beforehand and they try to ram one through the other.
“They’ve been good because they’re big and they’re strong and they’ve been tackling in, folding in, rolling in the way because they want to slow our ball down so you need a physical presence to be able to do that and we’ve just got to get there before them.
“We’ve got to not let them there and if they’re there we’ve got to get them out of the way with whatever means we need.”
One area where Ireland were “pretty angry” with themselves las time out, according to forwards coach Simon Easterby, was the concession of a penalty try to the Wallabies from a close-range lineout maul.
“It’s something you certainly don’t plan for, it’s something we pride ourselves on,” said O’Mahony. “Look, you’re playing against one of the best packs in the world. Sometimes these things happen.
“The quality of players they have up front is second to none, you try and plan for things; sometimes they don’t work and sometimes you’re just out-done in a lineout or a maul.
“It certainly is an area where we need to improve, I think our maul defence in general and our lineout defence and attack – we were out-performed in all three areas last week.”
In terms of personnel, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will be as important as ever if Ireland are to get over the line.
The fact that the uncapped Ross Byrne is backing up Sexton on the bench ahead of Joey Carbery points to Schmidt’s desire to get squad development on this tour, but the Ireland boss may well be nervous about any early injury to Sexton.
There is the late blow of losing Sean Cronin at hooker due to a hamstring injury but Niall Scannell showed last weekend that he is up to the task, while Rob Herring will add energy from the bench.
Aside from his back row, Schmidt’s team has plenty of settled and proven combinations, even with a couple of players missing through injury.
The Wallabies are a high-quality side but Ireland will have some justifiable confidence they can claim another success in this cup final in Sydney.
“I suppose cup rugby in itself means you’ve got to play the best rugby of your year,” said O’Mahony. “It’s the last game of the season for us and it’s a performance we’re going to have to live with for a long time after this.
“That’s familiar with a cup final. You don’t get a chance for a long time, some of us might never get another chance to put on an Irish jersey and I suppose that’s the beauty of international rugby.”
15. Rob Kearney
14. Keith Earls
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Bundee Aki
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray
1. Jack McGrath
2. Niall Scannell
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. CJ Stander
7. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
8. Jack Conan
16. Rob Herring
17. Cian Healy
18. John Ryan
19. Tadhg Beirne
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Kieran Marmion
22. Ross Byrne
23. Jordan Larmour
15. Israel Folau
14. Dane Haylett-Petty
13. Samu Kerevi
12. Kurtley Beale
11. Marika Koroibete
10. Bernard Foley
9. Nick Phipps
1. Scott Sio
2. Brandon Paenga-Amosa
3. Sekope Kepu
4. Izack Rodda
5. Adam Coleman
6. Lukhan Tui
7. Michael Hooper (captain)
8. David Pocock
16. Tolu Latu
17. Allan Alaalatoa
18. Taniela Tupou
19. Rob Simmons
20. Ned Hanigan
21. Pete Samu
22. Joe Powell
23. Reece Hodge
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère [FFR].
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