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Ireland v Australia: Tall order to finish year on a high

Defence coach and captain evasive over injuries on eve of match

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

After a week in which the majority of people's gaze was cast firmly over their shoulders at the All Blacks, Jaco Peyper and World Rugby, and the Ireland camp were dealing with a series of disruptive injuries, it was somehow fitting that yesterday's Captain's Run press conference would bring more drama.

When the squad came out for their photo before the light session at the Aviva Stadium, Sean O'Brien was nowhere to be seen. Peter O'Mahony, earlier left out of the Munster side named to play Treviso, was in amongst the green jerseys posing for the cameras.

Then, when the training got under way, Jared Payne stepped off the pitch and into a jacket as Rory Scannell joined the team on the pitch.

Between the disciplinary focus, the injuries and now the late drama, it has all been reminiscent of that fateful week at last year's World Cup between the win over France and the loss to Argentina that culminated in the heaviest defeat of the Joe Schmidt era.

Defence coach Andy Farrell, a post-World Cup addition to the coaching ticket, fronted the press conference along with captain Rory Best and his 'give as little away as possible' performance was reminiscent of Simon Easterby's on the eve of that quarter-final.

"No, as yet, no," he replied when asked if there were any late changes to the team named on Thursday.

"We've a couple of guys that have a couple of niggles. The Captain's Run is normally just a stretch-your-legs-type-session so we made a couple of decisions this morning to rest Jared and Sean O'Brien. We'll give them an extra 24 hours and just assess how they are in the morning.

"We'll have a discussion in the morning to give them that extra little bit of time to regenerate themselves." And the nature of the injuries?

"Just tweaks. Just lower-limb tweaks. That's what normally happens during a week, you pick things up along the way and still recovering from the game," came a cagey explanation.

"The main session was yesterday and we decided just to give a couple of players a rest today and assess them throughout the day. It's not unusual at all really... it's not a biggie for us whatsoever."

Despite Farrell's assertion to the contrary, this is quite unusual. It is unprecedented in the Schmidt era that two players don't take part in the regular session on the eve of the game or for one of the starting XV to stay away altogether.

This was always going to be a dangerous game for Ireland after their clashes with New Zealand in recent weeks, but now the waters look decidedly treacherous.

Given his absence from the stadium, O'Brien looks the more serious doubt but while the Tullow native - so outstanding against the world champions - would be a loss, there is plenty of cover with Josh van der Flier ready to step into the No 7 shirt and O'Mahony likely to come on to the bench.

The loss of Payne would be a near-fatal blow, however, given Robbie Henshaw's absence.

If Farrell's assertion that Scannell is next in line rings true, then it would mean a combined two caps in the centre between the Munster No 12 - who was only called into the squad this week - and Garry Ringrose who is only making his second start for Ireland.

Simon Zebo shared images of the New Zealand-born centre's badly bruised legs on social media yesterday, but Ireland are confident he will come through and play.

Given the similarities with that disrupted week last October, the performance of the team will be a good gauge of how much they have learned.

"The big difference today between the World Cup and now," Rory Best reflected, "is that a lot of those injuries (last year) were long-term.

"So, we played without them, we went to South Africa and the training week we had before we left; every day there was a new person dropping out.

"We adapted and guys got international experience. You'll not get a whole lot better than playing away in South Africa, especially that second Test at altitude in Johannesburg, that's a real test of character for any international player, never mind a guy young enough in his career. We've come through all of that now, so we feel we're a lot more adaptable.

"We've got a lot of young, exciting players who have gotten game-time. They now have that experience that they can bring in.

"The big thing this week is that Tuesday and Thursday are our biggest days, we've had the team on the pitch for those two days.

"The Captain's Run is more about getting used to the stadium - I know we know it - but it's a change of scenery, getting a run around and tweaking a few things but nothing major.

"All the work was done on Tuesday and Thursday, this is about getting out of the hotel and running around in the fresh air more than anything."

On the table is the opportunity to become the first team since Clive Woodward's World Cup-winning England to complete the Triple Crown of victories over New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in a calendar year.

Michael Cheika's men are at the end of a long season, but the former Leinster coach rested a cadre of big names for his team's win against France in Paris last weekend.

Unlike their hosts, they've enjoyed a week free of major disruption and will look to hit the ground running with trusted combinations.

Ireland backed up their Chicago performance with another excellent display against New Zealand last week, despite losing key men at vital stages. The most important man in the team is again absent due to injury, while his trusted lieutenant is also ruled out.

Without Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw, the Ireland back-line looked rudderless at times last weekend. It didn't help that Conor Murray looked short of a gallop, but the dominant forward performance couldn't be exploited by those outside.

Paddy Jackson and Garry Ringrose had never played together before, so that probably answers a lot of the reasons why but despite the presence of two of the out-half's Ulster colleagues as options for the No 12 shirt this week Schmidt has decided to have another look at the duo.

Much will depend on the breakdown and the loss of O'Brien would be a big one in this department with David Pocock ready to make hay.

Australia have named a tall pack to put pressure on Ireland's lineout and Stephen Larkham's attack can do serious damage off clean, quick ball.

Ireland attack may be compromised by their injury issues, but they will need the intensity to follow on from last week to have a chance. It looks a tall order.

Belfast Telegraph


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