Test Match Preview
2018 First Test
AUSTRALIA VS IRELAND
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Local time kick off 20:00, 10:00 GMT, SA Time – 12:00,
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Ireland arrive in Australia as the world’s No 2-ranked side behind the All Blacks. They have the Six-Nations trophy in their display cabinet, having achieved the much vaunted Grand Slam on their way to securing the trophy and the bragging rights that go with it. They are on a superb 12-match winning streak.
Well coached and self-assured, this is a team riding on the crest of a wave of confidence. Those jitters, that anxiety that used to be a trademark of the Irish whenever they were placed as favourites has seemingly disappeared.
This is an Irish team that has learned how to win, and they have the hunger. 18 months from now there is the small matter of a Rugby World Cup tournament, and they are eyeing the trophy with a certain amount of confidence. They believe they can beat anybody.
The Australian Wallabies are in a different place altogether. Rugby in Australia is in something of a crisis. Administrative turmoil and in-fighting abound. The RUPA, the players’ trade union is demanding more and more while finances are particularly strained. Active participation has dwindled at an alarming rate during the last four years as younger players walk away from the game and go off to try some other sport or pastime. Spectators have all but disappeared from the grandstands of the country, and television viewership is on the wane.
Off-field disciplinary problems abound across the country, with narcotic substance abuse seeming to be an increasing problem. There are divisive religious statements by a certain high-profile player. There are players who have been left out of playing squads who continue to insist on their monthly cheques.
The performances of the Aussie Super Rugby franchises have been less than inspiring, although there have been signs of some improvement after the absolute disaster that was 2017.
Australian Rugby is not in a great place at the moment.
If the Irish are surfing on a wave of confidence, the Aussies are surfing on a wave of confusion.
This is the first three-test series between the two combatants. All their previous encounters have been one-off Tests, so this will be the first time where the two teams will be afforded the opportunity to think, re-think, make changes, and learn about each other.
The Irish have won three of the past four Tests between the two countries.
The Aussies will, however, have one record that they will want to cling to. Ireland have not won a Test in Australia since 1979.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has named debutants Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Caleb Timu to start in the first Test against Ireland in Brisbane on Saturday.
Paenga-Amosa, who was playing club rugby just a year ago, will become Wallaby 918 when he runs out alongside experienced front-row duo Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu.
Timu’s journey to the Wallaby jersey has been a difficult one. The 24-year old returned to rugby in 2016 before suffering a serious knee injury in his first training session with the Queensland Reds.
Timu, who is set to become Wallaby 919, will partner David Pocock in the back-row. This will be Pocock’s first Test appearance since December 2016.
The Wallabies have named an otherwise settled starting fifteen that boasts 623 Test caps between them, and includes playmaking stars Will Genia, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale.
Cheika has also confirmed a six-two bench for Saturday ‘s Test that includes back-row Peter Samu, in what could be his Test debut.
Allan Alaalatoa will revert to loosehead prop on the bench to allow room for tighthead sensation Taniela Tupou to potentially play his first Test on home soil.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has named his matchday squad to take on Australia in their first Test at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on Saturday.
In an interesting move that might catch the Australians by surprise, Schmidt has chosen to start with Joey Carbery at flyhalf instead of Johnny Sexton. Australia will have been preparing for the Sexton kicking game, and the inclusion of Carbery may require a late rethink in their strategy. Sexton will start off the bench if required.
In the absence of Rory Best, blindside flanker Peter O’Mahony will captain the team.
He is joined in the back-row by Jordi Murphy at openside and CJ Stander at number eight.
James Ryan and Iain Henderson partner up in the second-row. In the front-row, Rob Herring wins his fourth cap at hooker packing down alongside Jack McGrath and John Ryan.
Rob Kearney is named at full-back and is joined in the back three by Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls.
Robbie Henshaw returns to the team and is reunited with Bundee Aki in the centre. Conor Murray is Joey Carbery’s half-back partner.
The replacements named are Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Quinn Roux, Jack Conan, Kieran Marmion, Johnny Sexton and Jordan Larmour.
Ireland have perfected a very simple, very effective game plan. They are masterful exponents of phase-play off set-pieces, and it works well because they are a great set-piece team. They work at being very accurate off the set-piece, coupled to a pinpoint kicking strategy.
They play a tight, forward oriented game that has relied heavily of the tactical kicking of the likes of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. A great game plan for the heavier, slower fields of the British Isles and Europe.
Their defence has also improved beyond measure as they have adopted the rush defence so well demonstrated by the British & Irish Lions of 2017. There are still some doubts about the defence, though, as they did allow some soft tries in the Six-Nations.
They are a very difficult side to beat.
But they do have some weaknesses.
As a team that is used to playing the slower, more precise game required by the weather and fields of the northern hemisphere, they will not be used to the pace of the southern hemisphere game. They will need to adapt to defending out wide and in depth.
Their kicking game will need ultra-precision. With the likes of Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty in the Wallaby back-three they have to contend with players who are very good at the kick-receipt and counter-attack. Kicks onto Folau may prove fatal as he revels in the space provided from fullback where he can get his pace and considerable momentum working in his favour. He is very difficult to bring down in the first or even second line of defence.
The tactic employed by thinking teams is to kick the ball away from Folau. He is not the best positional fullback and can be caught out if the ball is moving away from him, or rolling away. The selection of Haylett-Petty, a fullback out on the wing, provides some cover for one side of the field, with his own counter-attacking skills providing a foil for Folau to run off.
The Irish may target Marika Koroibete’s side of the field for their tactical and attacking kicks. He is the lesser ball-catcher of the three at the back for the Wallabies.
The Wallabies will certainly look to stretch the Irish defence at the earliest opportunity. Although Michael Cheika has shown a preference for playing a midfield based recycling game, he must know that his team’s best chance is by playing an expansive game and unleashing their outside backs. We can expect more width from the Wallabies than we have seen for some time. Employing two specialist 12’s in the midfield, Kerevi and Beale, suggests that the Aussies will be looking for rapid distribution of the ball rather than their usual crash-ball style.
We can also expect the Wallabies to be a serious nuisance at the breakdown with David Pocock returning to form a combination with Michael Hooper in this area of the game. Pocock has been in constantly improving form for the Brumbies of late, and adds experience and skill to the bustling game of Hooper.
Will Genia has been pretty vocal in the media of late, telling anyone who listens that he won’t be making the mistake of underestimating the Irish again. The truth is that the Irish identified his linking with Bernard Foley as a potential weak link on previous occasions, and have mercilessly targeted Genia, giving him very little time on the ball.
There is one area of the Wallaby game that should worry every fan. Their midfield defence looks decidedly rickety!
If we look at some Super Rugby stats we find that Samu Kerevi is the worst offender in the game when it comes to missed tackles. He even beats Raymond Rhule to the title of “Sieve-Tackler” with 36 missed tackles so far in the season. With Kerevi on the top of the “Missed Tackle” table, we find two more Aussies sitting at joint 3rd on the table. Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale have each missed 32 tackles this season. Marika Koroibete is no great shakes as a defender either, at 23 on the overall stats table, having missed 22 tackles.
If the Irish target the midfield with their aggressive ball carriers, especially the likes of CJ Stander, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, and Jordi Murphy, the Wallabies may be found wanting. Stockdale in particular, together with his wing partner on the other side of the field, Keith Earls, have been particularly dangerous with the ball in hand this year.
The battle of the tight forwards might be more even than some expect. The Aussie Super teams have been better at scrum-time in 2018 than we have seen for many a year, and they have the added muscularity of Taniela Tupou to make an impact off the bench. Their weakness might be at hooker, with a whole selection of rookies in their squad. The loss of the services of
Jordan Uelese may just hurt them badly.
It is interesting too, to think about Warren Gatland’s contention that the Irish do not like the ball to be in play for any extended period of time. They like to play from set-piece to set-piece. If the Wallabies succeed in keeping the ball alive for extended periods of play, they may find the Irish starting to lose their shape. That is when the Wallabies are at their most dangerous, but they will need to be very accurate on the counter-attack. The Irish are very good at disrupting the inter-passing of counter-attackers. Jacob Stockdale scored three intercept tries in the 6-Nations where attackers were guilty of slightly imperfect passes.
I also expect Bernard Foley and Will Genia to make full use of the boot. Rob Kearney is a very good fullback, but he is a safety first fullback who plays a low-risk game. He is not known for counter-attacking with the ball in hand, and the Aussies may just play onto him, waiting for his kick returns to reach Folau, Haylett-Petty and Beale.
Based purely on form, the Irish should win this comfortably.
However, Ireland are at the end of a long, arduous season and must be fatigued as they take on the Aussies. This will be their one weakness. If they get stretched wide for extended periods they may just run out of legs.
The Wallabies have a problem with their mid-field defence, an area that Ireland are likely to target.
Home ground advantage is usually a significant factor, but might not be that big this time. It depends on how many Queenslanders turn up on the day.
I’m struggling to see the Wallabies disrupting a strong, settled, confident Irish unit.
Ireland, by 10 points.
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Marika Koroibete, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Dane Haylett-Petty, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Will Genia, 8 Caleb Timu, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 David Pocock, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Lukhan Tui, 21 Pete Samu, 22 Nick Phipps, 23 Reece Hodge
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Joey Carbery, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Iain Henderson, 4 James Ryan, 3 John Ryan, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Johnny Sexton, 23 Jordan Larmour.