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Ireland under pressure in Melbourne but Schmidt feels they aren't far off

The Wallabies will be looking to wrap up a series success at AAMI Park on Saturday.

Murray Kinsella reports from Melbourne

AS IRELAND SETTLED into their new team base in Melbourne city centre on Sunday evening, there will have been an unfamiliar and slightly uneasy feeling within the squad.

After 12 consecutive wins, Joe Schmidt’s men were given a reminder of how hard it is to lose as the Wallabies deservedly got the early advantage in this three-game series with their 18-9 victory in Brisbane.

Johnny Sexton has a heated exchange after the game Ireland are not used to losing. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Clearly, Ireland didn’t enjoy the experience and the sight of the usually unflappable Conor Murray losing his cool and cursing at referee Marius van der Westhuizen towards the end was a rare one.

Johnny Sexton looked unhappy with one or two of the calls from the South African referee too, but van der Westhuizen’s officiating was far from being the main reason Ireland lost this Test.

As ever, the Irish players will be crystal clear on the controllable factors that can make a difference in the second Test against the Wallabies at AAMI Park this Saturday, with Schmidt firmly of the belief that minor adjustments can make a big difference.

Still, the Ireland head coach understands that his team are now on the back foot as Michael Cheika’s men attempt to wrap up a series success this weekend. Facing into the final Test in Sydney at 2-0 down is unthinkable.

It’s one of those things that it is tough mentally to get back up now because you are under pressure,” said Schmidt. “The Wallabies will have a spring in their step.

“They know that they caused us problems and put us under pressure but they’ll also know that there were a few times that we opened them up and caused them a few problems. We’ve just got to make sure that we score in behind that.

“Making linebreaks and potentially being held up over the line or kicking balls out on the full when we’re in behind them, or losing the ball forward, or not clearing it from the ruck – if we can amend some of that stuff then hopefully we can apply a little more pressure and take the spring out of their step a little bit because I think when they’ve got a spring in their step, they’ve got some athleticism that can be very hard to contain.

“Marika Koroibete got tackled in the corner by Jacob Stockdale but he was flying, and when Kurtley Beale gets time and space to run around and look to counter-attack or have time to look across and put a kick up for Israel Folau, it’s tough to try to defend that.

“So it’s probably not the result we’ll look at, it’s those elements of the performance that we can try to do something about because the result at the end of the day is whatever it ends up being.”

Joe Schmidt Schmidt was frustrated with Ireland's inability to keep the pressure on. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

So many of Ireland’s errors in Brisbane were uncharacteristic and released pressure on the Wallabies in defence, and Schmidt was willing to acknowledge that some of his players delivered rusty performances.

“We did look a little bit out on our feet, a little bit underdone,” he said. “A couple of guys hadn’t played for a few weeks. I think the Wallabies are in a match-to-match rhythm, but probably Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw haven’t played for five or six weeks and there are a few others as well.

“So from that perspective, hopefully with that game under their belt they’ll just have that little bit more rhythm and we’ll be that bit more resilient.”

The expectation is that Schmidt will make a number of changes to his starting team for the second Test, with Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose expected to add some playmaking strength to the backline.

Up front, Schmidt could bring Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy and Sean Cronin into the front row, while Devin Toner may slot into the second row. A rejig of the back row seems likely too, particularly with Dan Leavy available for selection.

“He could have played [in Brisbane],” said Schmidt of Leavy, after the Leinster flanker was the only player in the entire touring squad who did not take part in the pre-match warm-up at Suncorp Stadium.

“We’ve been nursing him along a little bit. There’s a couple of guys, like Tadhg Beirne, who’s just had massive minutes. There are a few guys who are probably part of a longer-term plan through the tour.

“Because if we don’t take this opportunity, I just don’t think we get another one. When we get round to the November series there’s a couple of really big games for us and then the Six Nations, you know, that’s over 100 years old and you don’t disrespect the Six Nations and not take it really seriously.

“Look, we’ll have Dan available and Tadhg and a few other guys, so we’ll have a look how guys come through and make some decisions.”

Robbie Henshaw and Jordan Larmour dejected after the game Ireland must lift themselves mentally for Test two. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The long-term development of his squad is a key focus for Schmidt on this tour, as evidenced by him starting the “pretty solid” Joey Carbery at out-half and giving him vital experience over 57 minutes.

Indeed, even in defeat, Schmidt was happy that he managed to allow a handful of less experienced players to learn in a top-tier Test game.

“I thought John Ryan made a couple of good tackles,” said Schmidt. “It was tough at scrum time because they were coming across the scrum, really hard from the tighthead, so it was a very tough night for Rob Herring and John from that perspective, but we’ve got a week to tighten that.

“Again, a kid like Jordan Larmour gets a good whack of time and acquits himself pretty well on the wing. He’s been at 13 last time, he’s been at fullback for us so we have players who have that versatility and energy.

“He chased that one ball [in the 75th minutes] and it was a fantastic pick-up but unfortunately, he just lost it in the tackle which was understandable because you’re just trying to control the ball and suddenly someone’s weight comes crashing down on top of you.

“That was probably another fine margin that we didn’t quite get.

“I know that Conor and Johnny will be frustrated with themselves for giving up that penalty but looking at it you can see the hand on the ball for a long time and it’s just one of those frustrations that you get slowed down after a linebreak like that, after Tadhg thundered through and gave that positive offload to Bundee.

“So again, if we can just be a little bit more accurate in that cleanout, even if a guy’s off his feet, we’re going to have to get him out the ruck somehow so we can continue to play behind them if we do get through them.”

For Schmidt, it’s always about those “skinny” margins.

The rest of us can debate Ireland’s need for more creativity, but the head coach will have his players focusing on the little details.

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Murray Kinsella

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