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Ireland are out to put down big World Cup marker

On the ball: Conor Murray in action at Ireland’s training session at North Sydney Oval yesterday
On the ball: Conor Murray in action at Ireland’s training session at North Sydney Oval yesterday

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

For all that he is focused on winning this series in Australia, there is no doubt that Joe Schmidt is keeping a close and increasingly worried eye on events in South Africa where Rassie Erasmus is already having an effect on the down-at-heel Springboks.

Ireland's World Cup picture is a simple one. If they can get out of a pool that includes Scotland and Japan, they will face either the All Blacks or the Springboks in Tokyo.

Top seeds and ranked second in the world, Schmidt's side would expect to negotiate their way through a tricky schedule to top their pool and, if the All Blacks beat the Springboks, it will be the familiar face of Erasmus guarding Ireland's traditional glass ceiling.

After all they have achieved since their 2015 exit at the hands of Argentina, the Six Nations champions will go to Japan with bigger ambitions than just getting to a semi-final, but until Ireland break through to the last four it will always be the primary aim.

If South Africa can continue their resurgence under the vastly experienced and highly respected former Munster coach, then Ireland face the battle of their lives to make it.

That's what puts this Saturday's series decider against Australia into sharp focus given the parallels with a potential last-eight clash.

A winner-takes-all clash against high-calibre opposition, a relatively short turnaround, a long way from home with a group of players who have been together for some time; it is a good dry run for what may happen in Japan next year.

Certainly assistant coach Simon Easterby can see the parallels.

"I guess it offers an opportunity, away from home, with a squad of 31/32 players that we're together and we're playing for something special," the former flanker, who was part of the 2003 team who went out at the quarter-final stage to France in Melbourne, said yesterday.

"It is something that hasn't been done... when was the last time we won in Australia? Thirty-nine years ago.

"To win a Test series in the southern hemisphere is a difficult thing to do.

"We know. We found that out in South Africa when we were 1-0 up and we came away with a 2-1 loss. These experiences are great for what will hopefully happen in 15 or 16 months' time."

Aside from the Six Nations, these three-Test series are the best proving ground available for the national team.

"It certainly adds to the players and adds to their confidence, and know that they can come to places like this and win last week after getting beaten the week before, and then the challenge is: can we back it up this week?" Easterby said.

"A World Cup is potentially like that, where you might lose one but you've still got another chance, and then after that it's knock-out rugby and you don't have a second chance. This week is a great opportunity to do that.

"We knew after the first Test that we had another chance, another two chances, and having won last weekend we want to win the series and we want to step to the next level, then it's important that we get the performance this weekend.

"I like these series personally, I think the players enjoy them. They feel there is something special to play for, and we don't travel to the southern hemisphere every season, and they travel up every season.

"So when you get a chance to play the same side three times, it adds different dynamics to playing three different teams.

"You've got to work out ways to outsmart a team and it's a little bit different from playing a different team each week. But it's certainly something the players enjoy and it's certainly something that as coaches we've enjoyed the challenge."

Three years ago, Ireland ran aground in Cardiff against Argentina after losing Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne to injury and Seán O'Brien to suspension before the game.

Since that game, Schmidt has looked to build depth in his squad, and last weekend Tadhg Beirne became the 34th player to be capped since the last World Cup.

He is unlikely to hand out too many more debuts in the 10 games between now and the warm-ups, but Easterby is happy with the depth now available to the squad.

"We're comfortable at the moment with what we've got in the stocks," he said.

"The problem is in this game you're always going to have injuries and you're always going to lose players. You're probably going to run on a 15 to 20 per cent injury rate at any one time and that's important that those players are managed and we don't overplay them.

"That's a real balancing act, particularly next season when you're going into a long season of international and club rugby and you've got on the back of that a good pre-season with the players but then we're into a World Cup period as well.

"So the strength of the squad is good at the moment and we're really comfortable with who we brought out here, but there's guys back home as well who haven't travelled, and I think they'll add to the competition next season as well.

"It's great that we're building that depth. That's one of those that we discussed a good while ago after the World Cup, that the depth in the squad was always going to be vital for us to be successful in the next World Cup."

This Saturday's game is all part of that plan.

Australia vs Ireland

Third Test

Allianz Stadium, Sydney, Saturday, 11.05am

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