Wednesday 20 February 2019

Acid test for Joe and his squad as injuries force big changes

International Test Australia v Ireland (Sydney, Live SSAction 11.05)

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt

This is the acid test of Joe Schmidt's grand plan to develop depth in all positions as a shield against what happened in the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final.

Back then, Schmidt was handicapped by the loss of the core of his team's spine in one fell swoop.

Captain Paul O'Connell, out-half Jonathan Sexton, flanker Peter O'Mahony and centre Jared Payne had all been injured with Sean O'Brien also suspended.

It would have been difficult to pick out more influential characters to have ripped out of the team ahead of The Pumas demolition job on Ireland at The Millennium Stadium.

From that moment on, Schmidt has made it his mission to do everything in his power to resolve this issue.

When the Irish team and replacements were announced yesterday, there were three guaranteed starters omitted by injury.

Ireland have been severely compromised by the loss of Garry Ringrose (foot), Dan Leavy (sternum), Andrew Conway (hip) and Iain Henderson (knee) in what is perceived to be a 50-50 decider.

Overall, there are five changes in personnel and four in terms of position.

It is probably enough to swing the pendulum of favouritism towards Australia.

When Schmidt first came into the job, he already had an encyclopedic knowledge of Irish rugby.

He knew what he had and he knew what was coming through the system.

For example, Schmidt would have known James Ryan is a unique athlete.

That is why the future Irish captain was capped for Ireland before Leinster, as had famously been the case with Brian O'Driscoll.

But now, Schmidt is faced with a rehearsal of what could happen in 2019.

Robbie Henshaw returns to outside centre where The Wallabies exposed him in the first test.

Bundee Aki will look to improve the speed of his decisions from inside centre.

Sean Cronin has been handed the start the hooker has been chasing in order to answer the serious claims made by Niall Scannell, on the bench for this one, and Rob Herring.

Henderson's athleticism and genuine power have been compensated for by the set-piece excellence of Devin Toner.

Most importantly, the failure of Leavy to get over his problem has led to a back row reshuffle.

CJ Stander moves to the blindside, Peter O'Mahony to the openside and Jack Conan to number eight.

The battle at the breakdown will probably be as decisive as it was in the first two tests.

Schmidt shared the fact that those scourges David Pocock and Michael Hooper "had about 34 bites at the ball in the ruck" in the second Test.

"That's an incredibly high volume and we know they're going to be every bit as threatening in the ruck again," warned the coach.

Ireland's speed to the ruck has been reduced by the loss of Leavy, and O'Mahony will have to deal with the Aussie specialists on his first international start at openside.

The collective effort at the ruck may be undermined by a third test in 21 days.

Australia: I Folau; M Koroibete, S Kerevi, K Beale, D Haylett-Petty; B Foley, N Phipps; S Sio, B Paenga-Amosa, S Kepu, I Rodda, A Coleman, L Tui, M Hooper (capt), D Pocock.

Replacements: T Latu, A T Robertson, T Tupou, R Simmons, N Hanigan, P Samu; J Powell, R Hodge.

Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong, D Toner, J Ryan, CJ Stander, P O'Mahony (capt), J Conan.

Replacements: N Scannell, C Healy, J Ryan, T Beirne, J Murphy; K Marmion, R Byrne, J Larmour.

Verdict: Australia.

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