Ireland v Australia big clash has makings of historic battle
Tonight's Ireland v Australia game has all the ingredients necessary for a classic.
On paper, they are two very well-matched sides. On paper, too, they boast very balanced personnel in terms of who is able to do what. They each have exciting-looking combinations – the caution borne of experience offset by the inventiveness of youth. And everywhere one looks, one sees contests deserving of the name.
Recent evidence suggests the tide has turned for the Australians, albeit that in view of the fact they are still ranked fourth in the world and clearly improving, their crisis – if indeed that is what it was – never reached critical proportions.
But Ireland are back up to sixth and beating opponents two places above them in the IRB world rankings would be a massive feather in their cap. A week ago, new coach Joe Schmidt steered the Irish to a 40-9 victory against Samoa and by so-doing has whet appetites for tonight's much bigger task.
There is genuine optimism that Ireland can topple opponents who, let's not forget, pushed last summer's British and Irish Lions to a third winner-takes-all series-deciding Test. So in view of the fact that the best amalgam of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh players only just pipped the Wallabies, what exactly are the grounds for tonight's belief?
I would point to two factors in a bid to lend credence to that view. Ireland's two most talismanic players – captain Paul O'Connell and past-captain Brian O'Driscoll – are there together for the first time as Irish team-mates in 18 months. Respectively they add incalculable amounts to the pack and back-line in terms of experience and the leadership they provide by example.
This is the last opportunity O'Driscoll has to lower the Wallabies' golden standard, so he will hope it proves to be a triumphant finale against opponents he had always enjoying facing. This week, he likened playing Test football against them to a game of chess.
And he was caustic in his dismal of a media question about this being a case of 'revenge' – a bizarre throwback to his omission from the Lions side for the third Test on July 6 past.
"It's not about revenge, that's nonsense. I played twice against them during the summer. That's gone and people need to let go of it. I know I have let go of it," he said, his annoyance at the question clearly evident in his tone.
"It's just another game. It's the second game of the Joe Schmidt tenure and it's about how we improve on the first one. It's just about Ireland now getting the opportunity to play against a side that's one of the best in the world."
That is O'Driscoll's mood and that is a real plus, as O'Connell's positive demeanour on the subject confirmed.
"Anytime we can have Brian on the field, anytime we can have more leadership on the field is very important in terms of playing against these southern hemisphere nations, especially against the likes of Australia. It's going to be really tough and I'm delighted that Brian is in the team as well," the big man said.
I like the balance of this Irish side. I like the fact that Schmidt has the courage to follow his convictions in choosing Luke Marshall rather than Gordon D'Arcy and Eoin Reddan ahead of Conor Murray. Could you ever in your wildest dreams imagine Declan Kidney making calls like that?
Schmidt has shown that things are going to be done his way, and I'm fine with that. After all, his way at Clermont and then at Leinster bore much fruit, didn't it?