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All to play for Down Under but World joy is big ask

By Jonathan Bradley

When SANZAR sides started pushing their northern hemisphere counterparts for more three-game series, it was games like this coming Saturday in Sydney that they had in mind.

A trio of Tests provides an unparalleled ebb and flow, a chance for move and counter move, and, when the two teams are as evenly matched as Ireland and Australia, the drama of a deciding game.

Joe Schmidt's side arrived Down Under in search of a series win, and that's what will be on the line in the Allianz Stadium after the visitors won the second Test on Saturday, but the bottom line tells only part of the story.

It's the back and forth between these two teams that has made for such a compelling tete-a-tete. Where David Pocock excelled in week one, it was Peter O'Mahony making the biggest contribution to the breakdown in Melbourne. Australia stifled Ireland with eye-catching linespeed in Brisbane but, just seven days on, enter Johnny Sexton whose variety of play kept the men in gold guessing throughout.

Arguably the best player on the field in Ireland's win was Tadhg Furlong who, after coming off the bench in the first Test, saw his side's scrum surprisingly demolished at a key point.

He admitted afterwards that, after such a successful season with Ireland and Leinster, he had almost forgotten how painful an experience losing can be.

With the series so engrossing so far, it will be interesting to see how Schmidt approaches the finale. Before taking off, the coach sat in Ireland's training base at Carton House and admitted that this challenge would always be seen in part of its wider context.

With the World Cup in Japan next year inching ever closer, Saturday's coming game will be one of just ten frontline games for Ireland before that tournament.

The chances to see who is and isn't ready for that tournament will be few and far between, especially with half of the games coming in the Six Nations, still the side's bread and butter.

As such, there is an argument to be made that Ireland would be better served in the long run doing as Wales have done and taking a longer look at some of those on the fringes.

There has once again been precious little game time on this tour for any scrum-half not named Conor Murray to use just one example.

With things so finely poised though, one suspects it will be a case of playing all of his best available.

Speaking of the World Cup, Ireland's hopes of a first ever semi-final spot have taken a blow this month, far away from Australia and through no fault of their own.

In Japan next year, Ireland's goal for the early games will be clear and obvious. Win the pool and make sure you avoid the likely meeting with the back-to-back champions New Zealand in the last eight. Do that in a pool that also contains Scotland, Japan, Russia and one other and a quarter-final with South Africa is odds on.

When the Springboks came to Dublin back in November, just seven months ago, they were embarrassed. The once proud nation shipping a record four-try, 38-3 defeat that was hardly fitting of a side who had twice before lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy.

The man sat in the Aviva Stadium media room that evening, Allister Coetzee, tried to put a brave face on proceedings but even he must have known his days as coach were numbered.

Having won just two games in that year's Rugby Championship, the hammering inflicted by Schmidt's men was only part of a wider trend even if the 54-year-old's contract ran all the way until the World Cup.

The same month that Jacob Stockdale was heaping more misery on Coetzee, Rassie Erasmus had left Munster for a return home and it was only a naive soul who believed he was walking away from Thomond Park for a desk job.

Sure enough, come February of this year Coetzee was out and Erasmus in, igniting a seemingly swift turnaround.

While they lost to Wales in Washington to start the new era, since England have been beaten twice. While Eddie Jones's men are certainly out of sorts, continuing on from a poor Six Nations last season, the victories appear already to have had a huge effect on the South African psyche.

There is a lot to be said for feeling that you have something near your best side on the field when representing the country and it's something South Africa have enjoyed all too infrequently over the past number of years due to the flood of their players heading for Europe. Having tried to instigate something of a home-based selection policy, although the official stance was that a player must have only more than 30 caps, Erasmus has performed something of an about turn, simply selecting the best available players.

Sale's Faf de Klerk was excellent in the first Test, as was Toulon's Duane Vermeulen on Saturday. Wasps' Willie Le Roux has been prominent too.

There may well be some selection changes ahead of the third Test but a series win is certainly a sign that this is not the same Springboks of even six months ago.

When you factor in that Scotland, who are building steadily under Gregor Townsend despite Saturday's shock defeat to the USA, and even Japan have been matching Italy blow for blow this June and suddenly what once seemed a favourable draw instead feels laden with potential pitfalls.

Even with a Grand Slam behind them, the ultimate goal will require further improvement over the next fifteen months.

Belfast Telegraph

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