After the disappointment at Twickenham, it was absolutely crucial for the Wallabies to get back to winning ways when they visited Italy in Rome, and thankfully, a great performance resulted in a great win for the men in gold. The Wallabies face a much sterner test this weekend though, as they travel to Dublin to face Ireland.
Does the Italy result show that the Wallabies are back?
Well, yes and no. Australia were fantastic during the seven try thumping of the Azzurri, but it must be remembered, this was Italy. No disrespect to Serio Parisse’s men, but Australia were always expected to run out as comfortable winners, but still had to be at their best to defeat an Italian side who scored three tries in the Stadio Olimpico.
What will have been a comfort to Wallaby fans was that they looked more assured in attack than they have for quite some time. With Quade Cooper the architect of their back play, they tore Italy apart when they had the ball in their half, and this certainly bodes well for the future.
When we consider the effect that Cooper can have on the side, we must ask the question: why on earth did Robbie Deans make the decision not to play him during the Lions series? The loss to the Lions seems to have been the defining moment of the Wallabies season, as it paved the way for some underconfident and uninspiring performances in the Rugby Championship. Given how well Cooper is now playing, it is not too much of a leap to speculate whether the Lions result may have been different with the Queensland Red at the helm as opposed to the underperforming James O’Connor.
And so to the weekend
Although the Italian result will certainly have restored some much needed confidence in the Wallaby ranks, the men in gold are certainly not out of the woods yet. This weekend they face Ireland, the men who beat them convincingly in the World Cup, and Ewen McKenzie’s side will need to be at their best to overthrow Joe Schmidt’s men.
Ireland will be formidable opposition, and should not be underestimated, as a loss in Dublin would put serious pressure on the Wallabies before crunch encounters with Scotland and Wales in the next few weeks.
Where the game will be won and lost
One of the areas of the Irish game that showed marked improvement during their clash with Samoa was the breakdown, and as with all modern rugby games, this part of the game is likely to be the key to deciding the winner of Saturday’s game. With a backrow trio of Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip, the men in green were impressive in the contact area against a very physical Samoan side, and their ability to force turnovers and win the collisions should be a threat that the Wallabies do not gloss over.
Having said that, the game was far more of a contest than the 40-9 scoreline suggests, with replacement Dave Kearney helping to put some gloss on the scoreline with a flurry of late tries. On paper at least, Australia should be more than a match for this Irish side, but will have to be aware of their physical threat.
Where will Ireland target the Wallabies?
Irish fans will have been delighted to see Paul O’Connell take to the field for his first game for 18 months, and the veteran lock will be odds on to start against Australia. This rather changes the complexion of this Irish team, with O’Connell famed for his imperious lineout ability. While the Irish were relatively free flowing against Samoa, they are likely to tighten up on Saturday, and are likely to revert to their tried and tested tactic of kicking to the corners and putting pressure on the opposition lineout.
With that in mind, the battle of the set piece is going to be absolutely key. Australia must ensure that their scrum and lineout are up to scratch, as these are areas that O’Connell and friends will certainly look to target.
One area the Wallabies must get right is their kick chase game; as in Rob Kearney Ireland have one of the most assured fullbacks in the game. Loose kicks to Kearney will give Ireland ample opportunity to counter attack, and with a good number of ball carriers in their side, Ireland will fancy making ground on the counter attack before punching holes off second phase ball. To prevent this happening Australia need to make sure their kicks are accurate, and most importantly that they are effectively chased.
Ireland are also sure to use the talents of Brian O’Driscoll to create space in the midfield, and with that in mind it’s crucial that Matt Toomua and Tevita Kuridrani don’t allow the outside centre time and space on the ball. O’Driscoll is no longer the athlete he once was, and if the Wallaby centres are able to clatter O’Driscoll before he has a chance to work his magic, they’ll go a long way towards nullifying his potential threat.
Where can Australia target Ireland?
The answer to this question is very simple: in attack. The Wallabies must do everything they can to prevent this turning into a dogfight, as if the game stays tight it will favour Ireland. Quade Cooper is going to be absolutely key in terms of creating space in the midfield, and he must ensure he gets dangerous striker runners Israel Folau and Nick Cummins into the game.
If O’Driscoll and Gordon Darcy start the game at centre, Ireland will be fielding a 12/13 partnership with a collective age of 67, and this is something Australia must exploit. Rather than attacking the 10 channel it would be wise for Cooper to spread the ball wider and get his back row running at O’Driscoll. Keeping the midfield legend busy tackling should prevent him from exercising his breakdown threat, whilst also tiring him out.
Another key part of the Ireland attack is the rampaging runs of Jamie Heaslip and whilst there’s no doubt that the Wallabies need to keep a close eye on the Ireland number eight, the Irish tactic of using Heaslip to punch holes can be used by Australia as a springboard for turnovers. Heaslip likes to go out on his own, and his often found to be running laterally in the search for gaps. The Australia back row should be on the alert for this; as if they can isolate Heaslip and get him down they’ll more than likely be able to force the turnover or penalty.
Who’s going to win this one?
If Australia are able to get the ball wide and get their striker runners into the game, they should run away with this one. Whilst possessing more than a few threats, this Ireland side is not a vintage one and can be undone relatively easily with the right gameplan. A win for the Wallabies would be crucial for confidence as they head into their game with Scotland before their final showdown with Wales – a game that is likely to be the game of the spring series.