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Irish bring in big guns to blast route to Wallabies decider

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

When the final whistle went in Brisbane last Saturday, Joe Schmidt experienced a feeling he hadn't known since March 11, 2017. Time hadn't eased the bitter disappointment.

The coach dusted himself down and went about his normal post-match routine, but when he got back to the hotel and retired to his room he didn't have much appetite for sleep.

By the time he came down for breakfast, he had watched the 80 minutes back on tape and, as he joined his coaching team at the table, he was already formulating plans for how to level the series in Melbourne.

Yesterday, he named a much-changed team for the second Test as the experimentation is shelved and, by and large, the Grand Slam winners return.

His hand was forced slightly by knocks to Bundee Aki, Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale, while his decision to send for Niall Scannell to bolster the scrum effort was a surprise; but in recalling Johnny Sexton, Dan Leavy and Garry Ringrose to the side, he will hope for a better performance.

Against a quality Australia team, there is no guarantee that would result in a better feeling at full-time, but the coach is leaving no stone unturned in the hope that they can take the series to a Sydney decider.

"I am not sure whether we win, lose or draw that I am not self-critical," he said of his night of reflection.

"I would say it is always more self-analytical because if you do not critique what you have done, there is always a danger that you will overlook something, and even if you get the win, you will get stung at some stage if you are not looking back over things and using a critical eye to be as forensic as you can.

"So the first thing I did was watch England play South Africa so I could take my mind off it for a while. And then I went back to it and had a look at the first half, had a little bit of sleep before I watched the second half so that I was pretty comfortable with what I had seen.

"Then you bring that to the coaches' table, and the other coaches have had a look at it, taken their notes, you put that in the melting pot effectively and you try to work out the things we did well, that we can build upon, and also the things we need to self-solve here.

"And you know, it is not personnel changes necessarily. Some of it is mindset, some of it freshness, some of it just prioritising what we need to get right."

Although he concedes that a loss would undermine a fantastic season, he is keen to see the players hold their heads high and retain the self-belief they built through their victorious Six Nations campaign.

"They have talked about backing themselves. I am not sure if an Irishman ever promotes himself and says they are better than other people," he said.

"It is probably not so much in their character to step out and say, 'I am really good at this game'. I think there is a big sense we are capable of winning this game, that we have the personnel, the individuals who would be able to do it.

"Garry Ringrose is a guy who would say very little about himself but if he does not have confidence deep down, I would be surprised, because I think he is a super player.

"We have to keep our confidence. What is probably better reflected as a one-score game, what we can bring this week hopefully will give their confidence a little bit of a boost.

"While we probably won't talk about it too much, hopefully it will consolidate a bit of self-belief."

One Irish player not lacking in self-belief is Sexton who, after admitting it was a very different challenge coming off the bench last weekend, is back in his favoured No.10 jersey.

The last time he faced a Michael Cheika-led team, while playing for the Lions against the NSW Waratahs, he came in for plenty of treatment as he recalled in his 2013 book.

"I was hit hard four times, all of them verging on me late, had my ankle stamped and had a prop lean on my windpipe to the point I thought I was going to pass out," he said. "When I saw Cheiks being interviewed after, I called him a name I can't repeat (although) with half a smile (because) we produced some cracking rugby."

Cheika smiled at the memory.

"Ha, I saw Johnny, what he wrote about the game against the Lions with the 'Tahs," he said. "If we start going out of the line trying to do that stuff we will get picked off so easily. He is smart enough to pick you off. And he is one of the toughest roosters out there. So you're not going to knock him about.

"I don't think there is any focus from me in regards to that. It's a nice storyline though."

Schmidt said there was no question of protecting his playmaker.

"Johnny is not prepared to protect himself," the coach said with a grin.

"He throws himself into the front line, and he is 93kg and he makes sure that if people are coming down his channel, that he knows they are there.

"I have tried to protect him for eight years of coaching him and he refuses.

"He is courageous and competitive to a fault sometimes, Johnny, but they are also two of the things that everybody in the team and the coaching staff love about him, because he will bring both those elements to the team as well as that acumen and guiding the team around the pitch.

"He brings that instinctive nature, clarity of thought, ability to read the game and direct people around the pitch. All those aspects. His leadership, he and Pete share the captaincy, you label one the captain, but when Johnny is there, between them they will lead and certainly Johnny is key to that.

"Pete will have his head down and his work cut out. Johnny will have his head up and directing us about."

Whatever happens, you get the impression Schmidt won't rest easy tomorrow night as the final game of a long season suddenly comes into sharp focus.

But he is determined not to taste defeat for another while yet.

Belfast Telegraph

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