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Rugby: Irish can set up new world order

By Niall Crozier

With Ireland having climbed to rung six of the International Rugby Board world rankings ladder, that has added real bite to this weekend's match against fourth-placed Australia in Dublin.

Though far from faultless, Joe Schmidt's first game in charge saw the Irish tick quite a few boxes and make significant headway.

Consider: Samoa were seventh in the rankings going into the showdown, one place ahead of Ireland whose victory margin – 31 points – was their biggest ever against Samoa. It was also the first time in 25 international outings that the Samoans finished a match without scoring a try.

By beating them, not only did Ireland leapfrog Samoa – they also queue-jumped Wales who lost 24-15 to South Africa in Cardiff. That defeat means the Welsh have now gone 17 Tests without beating the Springboks, Wallabies or All Blacks.

Admittedly Ireland's lead over Wales is a paper-thin five-hundredths of a rating point, but even that is sufficient to have earned Schmidt's men, who have 80.76 points, sixth place behind France (81.44), Australia (84.22) , England (86.31), South Africa (88.51) and New Zealand (93.20).

The French lead Ireland by just 0.68 of a point, although of the pair it is Les Bleus who have the easier assignment this Saturday when they host 13th-placed Tonga in Le Harve.

That said, France's results in 2013 – a solitary win and a draw in nine Tests – are singularly unimpressive and history shows once their heads start to go down they are capable of allowing them to continue dropping at an alarming rate to the point of implosion.

In comparison to Schmidt, whose Irish players are upbeat about where things are right now, under-fire French head coach Philippe Saint-Andre has the unenviable job of trying to rally troops who may just have lost a little of their faith in him, themselves and one another, albeit that their performance against the All Blacks last time out – they lost 26-19 on Saturday night – was a lot better than any of their three previous showings against the same opponents who rattled up an impressive hat-trick when the sides met in New Zealand in June.

Following jousts with Australia and Tonga, Ireland and France will end their autumn schedules with home dates against the All Blacks and the Springboks respectively. Now, they are ranked first and second in the world, so the challenge really could not be greater.

We all know only too well that Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks whose former captain, Sean Fitzpatrick, after watching them beat France at weekend, said: "New Zealand are on a mission. They know they messed up last year in Europe and you can see that there is a steely determination in their eyes."

Oh dear – ominous or what?

Saturday will see the world champions in action at Twickenham where England host them at 2.30pm, ahead of Ireland v Australia at 5.45pm.

Now, it just so happens that Saturday will be the fourth anniversary of the start of four years of uninterrupted New Zealand occupancy of pole position in the world pecking order, and having suffered a rare defeat when last at Twickenham, the Kiwis will be very keen to avenge the embarrassment of losing 38-21 on December 1, 2012, since when they are unbeaten.

Schmidt will be more than a little interested to see how they fare in their penultimate match of 2013, for he knows just how focused and ruthlessly efficient his fellow-countrymen are when it comes to seeing a job through and, in particular, to rectifying past wrongs.

And he knows, too, provided they put England back in their place, the All Blacks will come to Dublin needing just one more win to complete a 2013 clean sweep.

Against that, he will realise that by lowering the colours of fourth-ranked Australia, his Ireland team would then go into that date with the ABs borne up by notable wins in each of the first two matches of his tenure and presumably feeling pretty good about themselves as a result.

That's the pairing we all want to see; a confident, on-song Ireland at home to the world's best at a packed Aviva Stadium.

Belfast Telegraph


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