Rugby Union: Ireland have their backs to the wall

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING TO David Campese, who played some half-decent rugby in his time and still knows more than most about the mysteries of the Wallaby three-quarter line, Australia will have no fewer than 65 different back division moves at their disposal when they open their seasonal account against Ireland at Ballymore today. That could well prove at least 64 too many for an uncertain touring side fielding Test debutants at wing and centre. If Nathan Spooner, the Aussies' own international rookie, manages to put Tim Horan, Ben Tune and the rest in a square inch of space, it is likely to be a case of Goodnight Sheila.

The fact that the Irish are dabbling with some back-line adventure of their own suggests that, if things go wrong here, they will go wrong in a mighty big way. With all due respect to the mercurial David Humphreys, the muscular Kevin Maggs and the hugely promising Brian O'Driscoll, they do not quite stack up against a Wallaby unit who can legitimately think of themselves as the classiest act in the game, as well as the quickest. "If Australia are bold, Ireland are facing a 40-point drubbing," trumpeted Campo this week.

Nevertheless, the Irish hierarchy have pinned their emerald shirts on a new and radical approach. In the considered opinion of Warren Gatland, the national coach, the age-old "stick it in the air and see what happens" formula is not so much out of date as positively Jurassic. "You might keep the score down by keeping it tight and you might even sneak the very occasional victory if the opposition play poorly, but if you want to achieve anything meaningful in today's rugby you have to keep the ball in hand and make it work for you," said the former All Black hooker this week. "Our basics - our scrum and line-out - are pretty sound now, so it is about time we went in search of some continuity."

Not even Campese would argue with that doctrine. In fact, the most eloquent, not to say persistent, advocate of the running game probably feels like giving Gatland a kiss, on the basis that if the Irish are prepared to give it a rip out wide, the dark era of one-dimensional, up-the-jumper rugby is truly a thing of the past. But as the Irish readily concede, tactical revolutions do not happen overnight; witness their debilitating defeat by a second-string New South Wales outfit last weekend. Running the ball is one thing. Running it at the right time and in the right direction is something else again.

Most worrying for the tourists, victory on Wallaby territory has long ceased to be an option for European visitors: France managed a win in a "dead" match in 1990, but England have never won here, Scotland's most recent victory was in 1982 and Wales' last triumph was fully 30 years ago. The Irish themselves recorded a famous 2-0 series triumph in 1979, but shipped 30-plus points in all three subsequent Tests here. Australia is not an ideal location for the trying of new tricks.

Ironically enough, the underdogs' best hope is to get well and truly stuck in up front. No side, not even one as accomplished as these Australians, can lose so majestic a player as John Eales and not feel the pinch, and it is fair to say that the Wallabies themselves regard their front row of Dan Crowley, Jeremy Paul and Patricio Noriega as an untried unit. If Peter Clohessy, the frank and forthright Irish loose-head prop politely described by Crowley as a "dead-set dinosaur from the old school", can neutralise the destructive Noriega at the set-piece, forward parity should theoretically be Ireland's for the taking.

But for theory to become reality, they will need Lion-sized performances from their three Springbok slayers of 1997. Keith Wood, such an irresistible performer when the force is with him, has been training with all his old enthusiasm, but there are very real concerns over Paul Wallace, who looked exhausted even before injury brought his Premiership campaign to an early close, and Jeremy Davidson, who has spent two seasons in the foothills after leaving South Africa on a high the size of Table Mountain. The Wallabies will front them up, for sure. "Ireland always play with passion, but we'll take some of the same stuff onto the paddock," said Rod Macqueen, their coach.

Macqueen has had his players in training camp purdah for a fortnight and, given the spartan surroundings of their base in Caloundra, it is no great surprise they are champing at the bit. A second tete-a-tete with Ireland next weekend, followed by the Centenary Test with England in Sydney, leads them straight into the Tri-Nations and, finally, the World Cup. That last is their only priority, but this summer's programme gives them a heaven-sent opportunity to inflict some psychological damage on a quartet of rivals.

"By the end of this match we'll know exactly where we stand in terms of our new approach," said Gatland, a little nervously, on Thursday. He will also discover precisely how far he and his players must travel before they meet the Wallabies in World Cup mode at Lansdowne Road in early October. It is likely to be quite a distance.


at Ballymore, Brisbane

C Latham (Queensland) 15 C O'Shea (London Irish)

B Tune (Queensland) 14 J Bishop (London Irish)

D Herbert (Queensland) 13 B O'Driscoll (Univ Col Dublin)

T Horan (Queensland) 12 K Maggs (Bath)

J Roff (ACT) 11 M Mostyn (Buccaneers)

N Spooner (Queensland) 10 D Humphreys (Dungannon)

G Gregan (ACT) 9 T Tierney (Garryowen)

D Crowley (Queensland) 1 P Clohessy (Young Munster)

J Paul (ACT) 2 K Wood (Harlequins)

P Noriega (ACT) 3 P Wallace (Saracens)

T Bowman (NSW) 4 P Johns (Dungannon)

D Giffin (ACT) 5 J Davidson (Castres)

M Cockbain (Queensland) 6 D O'Cuinneagain (Sale, capt)

D Wilson (Queensland, capt) 7 A Ward (Ballynahinch)

T Kefu (Queensland) 8 V Costello (St Mary's)

Referee: A Watson (S Africa) Kick-off: 11am BST (Sky Sports 1)

Replacements: 16 J Little (Queensland), 17 N Grey (New South Wales), 18 C Whitaker (New South Wales), 19 J Williams (ACT), 20 T Strauss (New South Wales), 21 A Blades (New South Wales), 22 P Kearns (New South Wales).

Replacements: 16 J Bell (Dungannon), 17 E Elwood (Galwegians), 18 C Scally (University College Dublin), 19 D Corkery (Cork Constitution), 20 M O'Kelly (St Mary's), 21 R Corrigan (Greystones), 22 R Nesdale (Newcastle).