Ireland v Australia: Four talking points as Jonny Sexton returns
Ireland v Australia: Fiona O'Brien looks at four talking points ahead of the clash between the Irish and Wallabies on Saturday
Australia in crisis?
Australia will be looking to use Dublin’s Aviva Stadium as the venue to launch their return as a top force in rugby union. The Wallabies’ 2-1 series defeat to the Lions this summer saw the introduction of new head coach Ewen McKenzie. Just over a month later, he was thrown in at the deep end for the Rugby Championship, and Australia only managed victories against Argentina to finish third. But more importantly, they didn’t come away with a single point against South Africa and New Zealand in four matches. With the World Cup less than two years away, it is essential to bridge the gap between them and the “Big Two” southern hemisphere giants. Australia’s loss to England earlier this month was another setback but they bounced back with a 50-20 thumping of Italy last weekend. Going 10-0 down in the first half, Australia fought back and capitalised on any Italian errors. In an impressive performance, the Wallabies ran over seven tries and McKenzie’s team will be fired up to continue their momentum and prove themselves against a more prestigious side.
Battle of the fly-halves
Ireland’s first-choice No10 Jonathan Sexton has not played for Ireland since their Six Nations campaign in the spring. Head coach Joe Schmidt omitted the Racing Metro fly-half from his team against Samoa due to a demanding schedule at the start of this season, citing a hip injury and fatigue as reasons to play Paddy Jackson instead. Despite impressing, Jackson has been dropped and Sexton will be motivated to justify his winning of the Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year award this week. Opposite number Quade Cooper, like Sexton, poses an attacking threat to opposing teams. He has re-claimed his place at No10 from James O’Connor since McKenzie took over – and he has improved considerably, setting up three tries against Italy last week. Cooper is relishing the chance to play against Lions hero Sexton this week, praising the Irishman’s fighting spirit. This is a key battle, and Sexton’s 71.5 per cent kicking accuracy as opposed to Cooper’s 65.9 per cent may secure vital points in what will likely be a close tie.
Following an embarrassing Six Nations campaign earlier this year which saw Ireland miss out on “claiming” the wooden spoon to France due to point difference. Schmidt will relish the first real test of his reign against a proven side; this is only his second game in charge since taking over from Declan Kidney in April. Earlier this week, he admitted that his team need to improve on their performance against Samoa in order to get a result as they would not be able to deal with as many line-breaks against the more clinical Australia. A 40-9 win was perhaps flattering, but they showed enough class at times to encourage their hopes of getting a good result against the Wallabies. Schmidt reiterated, however, that there would be no chance of this if they did not address defensive issues against more clinical opposition. He is not afraid of dropping big names, as the likes of Gordon D’Arcy and Donncha O’Callaghan can vouch for. The Kiwi is looking to find his best team and is keen to blood new players as shown by Dave Kearney’s double against Samoa on his debut. Experienced Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll will be determined to show he is still worth his place on a big international stage. He will also be looking for personal victory to justify why he still resents Warren Gatland’s omission against Australia in the final Test in the summer.
Much has been said about the final Test of the Lions tour where Australia were found lacking in the scrum. Ireland have played down any mention of Australian weakness here, but there is no doubt that the Men in Green are strong in the set-piece. The re-introduction of experienced Paul O’Connell as captain for his first start in 18 months will only help Ireland dominate possession here. They cannot afford to concede any easy ball at the breakdown to stop an Australian back-line of playmakers capitalising on any chances that come their way. Leinster lock Devin Toner will put pressure on Australian lineouts as well, as he looks to use his 6ft 11ins frame to dominate the aerial battle. Schmidt has made extremely considered decisions to keep as much possession as possible.