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2013 will go down in rugby history as the year of the power swift. From the Lions winnings a series for the first time in 16 years and the disgraceful power grab attempt by the English and French clubs over the governance and financial control of European rugby.
This power shift is even evident in international rugby. The gap between nations is closing on the field. And rapidly. Tier 2 nations like Samoa, USA and Japan are making huge strides and are recording victories, or are about to, over their tier one rivals.
This gap is also true of Tier 1 nations. Aside from New Zealand, any team from 2nd or 3rd in the rankings, all the way down to Wales in 7th can beat each other and it wouldn’t be considered an upset. Each one of Wales, England, Ireland, Australia and France will feel that they are good enough to be named third best in the world, and that they are the best chance of beating South Africa and maybe upsetting New Zealand.
Which brings us to this weekend's game; Ireland v Australia. Ireland are ranked 6th in the world, to Australia's 4th. Recent history between the teams is close, with 2 wins to each side in the last 5 games and a draw. Australia haven't beaten Ireland in Dublin since 2005, with Gordon D'Arcy, Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and Tatafu Polotau-Nau the only survivors with a chance of playing at the weekend.
The most recent game, a 15-6 win to Ireland in the RWC 2011 counted as an upset, but would a victory for Ireland this weekend also be treating as an upset?
I would argue it isn't. Australia's record in Dublin isn't great, and their 2013 record is dreadful. Ewen McKenzie has brought a bit of spark back into the Wallabies with 18 tries in their last 4 games, although if you take out the two 7 try drubbings, they've only scored 13 tries in their 10 other games in 2013.
Ireland's record in 2013 isn't great either, with a dismal 6 Nations all the way back in February/ March ending Declan Kidney's reign. A lot of time has passed since then, and the leaders amongst the Irish squad were in Australia, where Sean O'Brien, Paul O'Connell, Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray, Tommy Bowe, Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip all played a part in a victorious Lions test series; while Peter O'Mahony, Fergus McFadden, Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson, Mike Ross, Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy played parts in Ireland's tour of the US and Canada. Joe Schmidt has brought a freshness to the squad, and there as an air of calmness as they went about their business against Samoa, with no hang-ups on form, or worries about the pressures to win.
If the papers are to be believed, Ireland will target the Wallaby lineout and scrum, and the battle of the breakdown will be fierce. For years Ireland haven't had a "genuine openside" and have instead used the breakdown talents of Cian Healy, Rory Best, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Brian O'Driscoll. Michael Hooper will have a lot on his plate.
Australian media expects Ireland to use the "choke" tackle that served them well in 2011 to go after the Wallabies in the scrum time and again. While this will no doubt be a tactic, I suspect that they will use another alternative style of tackling to get as many offloads as possible. Ireland have been trying the chop tackle technique against Samoa; so much so that attentive listeners to the referees microphone on Saturday could hear shouts encouraging them to tackle low so the next man in could get over the ball quickly. This helped to win 12 turnovers in open play, and a few other penalties for holding on.
Australia will look to play an expansive game with everything going through Genia and Cooper. Ireland’s defence will need a massive improvement if we’re to get anything out of it. Ireland need to avoid the stray kicking from last week, and try to limit Israel Folau’s involvement in the game. He showed in the first Lions test what he can do when given limited opportunities.
The weather is set for cloudy with a good chance for rain, which sets up an intriguing test match. While Ireland wouldn't lose too much confidence with a loss, a win would signify the power shifting from the Australians. Bring on the Aussies.
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