Ireland primed to claim southern hemisphere scalp
Coach Declan Kidney keen to let his backs off the leash against Australia tomorrow
There is so much riding on the results of Ireland's World Cup play-offs with France tonight and next Wednesday (some would argue the mood of the nation), that it is hard to justify the importance of the Irish rugby team's "friendly" clash with Australia at Croke Park tomorrow .
There actually is a trophy at stake, the Lansdowne Cup, but when Ireland are not involved in a Six Nations or World Cup encounter, people struggle to see how the result matters.
It does matter, hugely, and the evidence will be in the intensity of both sides in what is shaping up to be a fascinating battle. Robbie Deans is building a squad for the World Cup in 2011, when Australia will be grouped with Ireland at the pool stages, and has been taking a pasting from his own media after a disappointing Tri-Nations campaign. However, Deans has a talented group of players at his disposal and their victory over England at Twickenham last weekend will have given them confidence.
Australia will look to expose flaws in an Ireland team that has not played together since March; they are also certain to target the front-row, which includes a debutant (Cian Healy) and two players (Jerry Flannery and John Hayes) short on game time.
Like Deans, Ireland coach Declan Kidney is also building towards the World Cup but is further down the track, with proven combinations and battle-hardened quality spread throughout his team. Under Kidney, Ireland have a superb record of nine victories from 10: what they don't have is a victory over one of the southern hemisphere's big three. Tomorrow's match offers the opportunity to assess how far they have travelled in 12 months. The Grand Slam laid down a marker for this Irish team but they are now looking to expand their game-plan beyond the structured approach that served them so well last season.
They have the weaponry in the backline, and, stung by a Lions experience that did not do his talents justice, Luke Fitzgerald looks ravenous this season and forms a quality back three with Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe.
Kearney's class under the high ball is a given but we may now see his natural attacking instincts given free reign, while Brian O'Driscoll's excellence throws more fuel on the fire of Irish optimism, particularly when weighed up against the talented but callow Wallaby midfield of Digby Ioane and Quade Cooper. Paddy Wallace is a nice foil for O'Driscoll at inside centre and his kicking and distribution skills will be of considerable use when Ronan O'Gara comes under pressure.
At scrum-half, Tomas O'Leary will need to keep tabs on Australia's explosive talent Will Genia, while not disregarding his own threat in attack.
The back-row contest, though, promises to be one of the highlights of the contest. The Irish trio need to pressure Matt Giteau at No 10 and limit the turnover-winning capacity of Australia's openside David Pocock.
Concerns over Hayes after his month-and-a-half lay-off are misplaced, and the Cappamore man will roll up and do his thing with customary efficiency, while locks Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan will expect to dominate James Horwill and Mark Chisholm. And Healy? Sit back and watch, he's here to stay.
However, the strongest reason for backing Ireland tomorrow is the quality of their backroom team: Kidney, Les Kiss, Gert Smal, Alan Gaffney and manager Paul McNaughton have created a winning environment that is hard to resist.
Smal will guarantee set-piece possession and a challenge for Australia in that departments, while Gaffney and Kiss's knowledge of the Wallaby players will prove a notable advantage for Ireland. Kiss has coached against Australia twice before during his time with South Africa, and after securing one win and a draw, he will be determined to taste more success tomorrow.
"There are lot of emotions there for me obviously," he said. "There are a lot of guys that I was very close to during my time with the Waratahs. But this isn't the time for getting mixed up with those emotions. My total world is with this Irish team. That's what I'm emotionally investing in at the moment."
Australia go into the contest after a run of games that may help them seize an early initiative, but Ireland's overall quality and self-belief should be powerful enough to see them sneak home in what promises to be an intriguing contest. Giteau versus O'Gara, O'Leary versus Genia, Elsom versus Ferris and Heaslip versus Palu are clashes to savour – this is going to be full on. Friendly? Not a chance.
Croke Park: Tomorrow's line-ups
R Kearny (Leinster) 15
T Bowe (Ospreys) 14
B O'Driscoll (Lein, c) 13
P Wallace (Ulster) 12
L Fitzgerald (Lein) 11
R O'Gara (Munster) 10
T O'Leary (Munster) 9
C Healy (Leinster) 1
J Flannery (Munster) 2
J Hayes (Munster) 3
D O'Callaghan (Mun) 4
P O'Connell (Mun) 5
S Ferris (Ulster) 6
D Wallace (Munster) 7
J Heaslip (Leinster) 8
Replacements: S Cronin, T Court, L Cullen, D Leamy, E Reddan, J Sexton, K Earls
A A-Cooper (Brum) 15
P Hynes (Reds) 14
D Ioane (Reds) 13
Q Cooper (Reds) 12
D Mitchell (W Force) 11
M Giteau (W Force) 10
W Genia (Reds) 9
B Robinson (W'ths) 1
S Moore (Brumbies) 2
B Alexander (Brum) 3
J Horwill (Reds) 4
M Chisholm (Brum) 5
R Elsom (Brum) 6
D Pocock (W Force) 7
W Palu (Waratahs) 8
Replacements: T Nau, M Dunning, D Mumm, G Smith, L Burgess, R Cross, J O'Connor
Referee: J Kaplan (SA)
Venue: Croke Park
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