Letter from Melbourne: Wallabies struggle for attention in AFL country

Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad have been working towards rebounding on Saturday.

Murray Kinsella reports from Melbourne

A COUPLE OF newspapers managed to squeeze in a few paragraphs about Israel Folau today but you could be forgiven for wondering if there really is a Test match between Ireland and the Wallabies taking place in Melbourne this weekend.

Even the short articles about Folau were in relation to his Aussie Rules-style overhead catching skills, which the Wallabies fullback has revealed he first began to hone at guest sessions with the AFL’s Carlton Football Club during his time in rugby league.

With 10 top-level Aussie Rules clubs based in the state of Victoria, this is very much AFL country and a visit to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Monday helped to underline how popular the sport is here.

‘The G’ is a 100,000-capacity stadium and even for this regular-season AFL fixture between Melbourne and Collingwood, there was a crowd of around 85,000 people in attendance.

Collingwood – the Magpies, or even the Pies, as the locals call them – came out on top of a 133-91 scoreline.

Surprisingly enough, it was a Texas native who impressed us most, with Mason Cox - he’s nicknamed ‘American Pie’ – standing out for Collingwood in a fixture that once again highlighted the sheer quality of the AFL’s fielding skills.

Inspired by Aussie Rules, Folau is taking fielding in rugby union to another level and his threat will surely have been a big focus for Ireland in their preparations this week.

Joe Schmidt’s men are based in the city-centre Grand Hyatt hotel, while the fact that their training sessions are taking place at nearby St Kevin’s College underlines the quality of the sporting facilities in many Australian schools.

A heated training session on Tuesday was a good sign for Schmidt and his coaches, who are simultaneously keen for Ireland not to get worked up too early this week, with another ferocious Test to come on Saturday in AAMI Park, home to the Melbourne Rebels.

AAMI Park’s capacity is only 30,050, which is more than 20,000 less than last weekend’s first Test venue, Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

Dan Leavy and Garry Ringrose Dan Leavy and Garry Ringrose out and about in Melbourne. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But it makes sense when you consider that Hawthorn, based in the Melbourne suburbs, are playing an AFL game in the MCG literally next door at 7.25pm on Saturday evening, while the Australian soccer team also kick off their World Cup campaign in Russia against France at 8pm.

The Wallabies get underway against Ireland at 8.05pm and, as ever in Australia, rugby union is facing a real battle to get attention.

Another victory for Michael Cheika’s side would perhaps earn them a few more seconds on TV news bulletins, as well as articles online and in the papers, with the Wallabies searching for the kind of consistency that will make their country proud.

Going into the final week of this series in Sydney 2-0 down would be a disaster for Ireland, even if it would likely mean more scope for Schmidt to experiment.

The Ireland head coach is all about winning, however, and a big response is expected as frontliners like Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Garry Ringrose and Cian Healy come back into the starting team.

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There are plenty of Irish people in Melbourne, of course, and the support on Saturday should be vocal.

Sonia O'Sullivan Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Sonia O’Sullivan, who spends her time between Melbourne and Ireland, was at the team hotel on Tuesday, popping in to greet friends in the media, and wishing some of the Irish players well for the second Test.

Ireland’s squad used their down day on Wednesday to relax, heading out and about in a city that is packed full of cool cafés, street art and plenty of tourist attractions.

They are back to business on the training pitch on Thursday as Schmidt looks to ensure they are perfectly prepared to level this series in Melbourne.

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Murray Kinsella

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