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Ring rusty Irish are left with a mountain to climb

By Jonathan Bradley

So much for the favourites tag then.

Ireland arrived in Australia amidst a genuine feeling that anything less than a series win against the rebuilding Wallabies was to be a disappointment and, while that may still be the case, head coach Joe Schmidt will be well aware that to do so now will be a monumental achievement.

Out in South Africa two years ago they found out to their cost how the momentum of such series can swing, but it'll be Australia who head to Melbourne with confidence after they produced a eye-catching physical display, one where the returning David Pocock, in tandem with Michael Hooper, was a constant thorn in the side while Israel Folau ruled the skies.

It was a case of green and gold up against green and rust as, despite a week and a half of prep, Ireland showed signs of having not been together for some three months since clinching the Grand Slam and with some having not played much rugby of late.

And while Schmidt did give some of his large front-line Leinster contingent a delayed start to the series - and you can't help but feel they'll be a different side with Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Dan Leavy restored - those from the other provinces had played at best once in the past six weeks. Throw in a few new combinations and it was little wonder the side were not the ruthlessly efficient beast that saw off all-comers in the northern hemisphere in early 2018.

Lock Iain Henderson was one who no doubt was getting used to be out there again. The Ulsterman hadn't hit a ruck in anger since limping out of the his province's loss to Munster in Thomond back at the end of April.

Indeed he had to work hard just to prove his fitness to make the trip at all but put in a good shift in Ireland's engine room.

While his second-row partner James Ryan grabbed more of the attention with a number of stand-out moments, the 26-year-old had an industrious shift.

With Australia having been so good at the breakdown, there was plenty for him to do at the contact area, especially missing the effective clear-outs of Dan Leavy behind him in the back-row. There was still the some of his more prominent work too, a turnover forced out of Will Genia a particular highlight

Henderson has always been a player who performs better the more rugby he has under his belt so his showing bodes well for the remainder of the tour.

Throughout the Six Nations the sight of Jacob Stockdale scoring in a green jersey became so commonplace that it now almost feels like a surprise when he doesn't cross the whitewash.

Indeed this was just the third such instance in what is now a 10-cap career but he still had one moment that will make the highlights reel.

With 19 minutes on the clock a missed tackle in midfield had Ireland exposed out wide with the excellent Kurtley Beale seeming sure to score in the right corner.

Coming off his left wing berth and streaking across on the cover though was Stockdale who, for those watching on TV, came from nowhere to thump the former Wasps man into touch just before he started his dive for the line.

He was, however, beaten in the air by Folau and, while he was hardly alone in that boat, that it launched a key Australia attack made the sight of Australia's controversial yet majestic full-back rising high above the Ulsterman's head stick in the mind all the more.

It was, however, the least heralded of the Ulster contingent that proved to be the most eye-catching performer on the day. Hooker Rob Herring has come in from the international wilderness this season, his only cap prior to this year having come as a substitute flanker out in Argentina four years ago.

He was impressive against both Fiji and South Africa in November though, even if his continued good form for Ulster didn't see him any matchday squads during the Six Nations.

But in the absence of Rory Best through a hamstring injury, the native South African was given the starting spot for Saturday. And while it was not a performance that will steal any headlines, it was a test that the 28-year-old rose to well.

Accurate in the line-out, prominent around the park and popping up with a few carries, he's earned more time on tour.

In the rare absence of Best, it would be understandable if Schmidt wanted to get a long look at each of the three hookers he has brought on tour but if Herring doesn't hold on to the number two jersey for Melbourne it will have little to do with how he performed on Saturday.

The fourth Ulsterman on tour, John Cooney, is another who will anxiously await Thursday's team announcement. The scrum-half swept the board when it came to Ulster accolades last season.

And while his place on the tour was seen as just reward for a string of commanding performances, he will be loathe to endure a repeat of last summer when he travelled to USA and Japan but appeared only in the final moments of the concluding game.

Backing up Conor Murray in a green jersey can seem one of Test rugby's most thankless tasks - Kieran Marmion must have one of the lowest minutes to caps ratios and again got only a handful at the death on Saturday - but Cooney will be hoping for a chance off the replacements bench for the second Test.

Now just 15 months out from the World Cup, it could be a big opportunity for both him and Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph

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