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Ireland have great chance to make it an amazing Autumn

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

What is it about the favourites tag that itches at the Irish neck to such a degree?

In other countries, they relish the idea of being talked up and respond but the nature here is to shy away from the compliment.

All week, the question looming over this Ireland camp is whether they can handle the heat of expectation that comes with being European champions, ranked third in the world and backed by the bookies to beat one of the southern hemisphere's big three.

They have earned those accolades through their performances and results.

This time last year, they were going into the final November international as rank outsiders after a four-try-to-nil defeat against today's opponents.

Since the harrowing defeat to New Zealand that followed, they have lost just once, at Twickenham, won the Championship in Paris, defeated the Springboks and become a hardened, clinical outfit coached by a man who appears to respond to every success by asking for more.

Those, as well as the prospect of watching some of the world's most exciting players in Israel Folau and Co, are the reasons the Aviva Stadium has long been sold out for this afternoon's meeting. The expectation has risen to match Ireland's achievements. The team's competence breeds a nation's confidence.

If the players at large are keen not to, as Conor Murray so succinctly put it, fall in love with themselves, those at the top appear to be encouraging a certain belief.

The game tape might go out the window due to Australia's change of coach, but the feeling of disappointment that Ireland felt a year ago can be channelled this afternoon.

There are individual disputes to be settled. Rob Kearney was hounded by the Wallabies for a perceived sleight in the press room and lost his battle with Israel Folau, the scrum was out-muscled by a Wallaby pack who played the referee and the defence was shredded by Quade Cooper and his all-singing, all-dancing friends out wide.

Barring a late switch from Michael Cheika, the magician is kept in reserve this afternoon and the talented Bernard Foley continues his impressive stint in the gold No10 shirt, with Nick Phipps alongside him.

Ireland's half-backs were mercurial two weeks ago, but they will hope for more attacking, go-forward ball this afternoon. Australia are not a small team, but they don't possess the sheer brute force of the South Africans across the park.

That means the home side should be able to get their game going a little more and they'll hope to spend some more time in the opposition '22' this time around.

Ireland will hope to cause more problems with ball in hand with the weather forecasters optimistic about the conditions.

Schmidt stressed that an off-loading game will only come if the players are breaking tackles as they did against Georgia, but he will hope to be able to introduce some of his trademark starter-plays off good set-piece ball.

Australia went through Ireland like butter at times last year and Schmidt will be hoping the defensive work carried out by Les Kiss over the past 12 months has tightened things up sufficiently.

This will potentially be Simon Zebo's biggest test in an Ireland shirt, with the Munster man lining up opposite the experienced Adam Ashley-Cooper and likely to face Folau at some stage.

Up front, Ireland will be hoping to learn from their scrum struggles against South Africa having complained the 'Boks used the illegal 'hit-and-chase' tactic. Watch out for Mike Ross lining up as close as possible to James Slipper to negate the impact of the referee's 'set' call.

Arguably the most interesting head-to-head will take place in the stand between the former Leinster supremos in charge. They are contrasting characters, but both Schmidt and Michael Cheika are creative thinkers with winning in their blood in charge of two of the more cerebral international teams on the circuit.

The Leinster contingent in the Ireland dressing-room know better than to believe Cheika's team-sheet until they actually turn up on the day, while they are also expecting a tactical surprise or two.

Ultimately, though, it could come down to physical condition and which of the teams is fresher come the finale.

Verdict: Ireland 26 Australia 24.

Belfast Telegraph

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