Can Ireland underline England’s pathetic showing and take the Australians’ scalp at Croke Park tomorrow?
There’s at least one international coach who is backing them to do it. And he’s seen enough of the Wallabies in the last six months to know what he’s talking about.
Italy coach Nick Mallett took his side Down Under back in June for two Tests against the Australians, as well as another in New Zealand. The Italians lost each one, by an average of 20 points, but based on what he saw then Mallett sees no reason whatever why Brian O’Driscoll’s men can’t claim a notable southern hemisphere scalp this weekend.
Yet the big South African highlighted an unusual area of the Irish squad as potentially the key. He didn’t focus on the Irish defence or attack, its line-out or scrum. Instead, he lavished praise on coach Declan Kidney and his coaching staff who, he says, are among the best in the business.
“I just think that the Irish coaching staff is very, very good. The group Declan has got there has got so much understanding about the game. They might not be in the headlines every week but believe me, they are seriously impressive people who really know the game.
“Gert Smal was Jake White’s forwards coach with the South Africans and knows a huge amount about packs. Les Kiss is an extremely knowledgeable defence coach and Alan Gaffney is highly rated as the backs coach.
“I thought they all did a fantastic job last year. Even though some of their games in that Six Nations were nip and tuck, they won it and that’s a hell of a hard thing to do.
“There is very little between most of the sides in the Six Nations these days which means that almost anyone can just about turn over anyone else. There isn’t one outstanding side that is head and shoulders above any other and there hasn’t been for a few years. So Ireland’s achievement in sustaining it all through the season and ending up beating everyone is an enormous tribute to their coaching staff.
“They would have done a vast amount of hard work behind the scenes, preparing, watching opponents, discussing matches and individuals. No Ireland side nowadays goes onto the field anything less than 100 per cent ready and prepared and that’s a compliment to Declan and his colleagues.”
Mallett thinks that the Australians will find life a whole lot tougher at Croke Park than was the case against England at Twickenham last Saturday. “Australia will be given a really severe test by the Irish, I’m certain of that.
“When you win a major trophy, it helps your deep-seated confidence, it’s bound to. That doesn’t mean you can be over confident but in the tight moments of a close match, that inner belief which comes from winning can make all the difference. Ireland has that now and I think they've got what it takes to beat Australia.”
But Mallett also paid tribute to the players in Kidney’s team. “You have got to add that they have some pretty special players, none more so than Brian O’Driscoll. I think he will increasingly look to Ireland and his coaches to protect him, especially if he wants to go to the next World Cup and then carry on beyond that. He has a big advantage over so many other players in the northern hemisphere because he probably only plays around 24 games a season whereas a lot of the guys in countries like England and France play as many as 35.
“That makes a very big difference at the end of a season. But that is another advantage to the way Ireland have structured their rugby.”