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Ireland can play, but can they tour?

Rory Best of Ireland celebrates with The Six Nations Trophy after the Six Nations Championship between England and Ireland in 2018 (Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
1st June, 2018
42
1740 Reads

There is a certain nervous wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by Australian fans who can’t stomach the idea of a repeat of 2016 with the much-anticipated series between the Wallabies and European champions, Ireland, approaching.

Who could forget witnessing our beloved Wallabies getting their collective backsides handed to them by the old foe of England, three-zip, in a historic series long be remembered for the wrong reasons?

This formidable Irish side, who recently have conquered all in their way when you consider Leinster’s emphatic performances in Europe have – to a degree – justified Australian fears of seeing the Wallabies yet again put to the sword by a northern hemisphere powerhouse.

But to quote the great American president Franklin D. Roosevelt in his inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

A wonderfully abstract statement perhaps, but in context of this forthcoming series I asked myself a simple question; I know the Irish can play, but can they tour?

History would suggest the Irish don’t play particularly well on extended tours against the same opponent.

Interestingly, in the rich history of Irish rugby, they have only ever attempted a three-test series tour twice – to New Zealand in 2012 and South Africa in 2016.

There is no shame in touring New Zealand in 2012 and losing three-nil against a side that had recently won a Rugby World Cup.

As Australians know all too well, New Zealand is an awfully difficult place to win. That aside, there is shame in losing the final test of that tour 60-0.

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Despite Ireland not being coached by Joe Schmidt, they had a very good team with names like Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahoney and Sean Cronin. All of whom will be touring Australia this June.

Ireland's fly half Jonny Sexton kicks a penalty

(AFP PHOTO / IAN MACNICOL)

The three-test tour of South Africa in 2016 got off to a better start for Schmidt’s men who won the opening encounter with the Springboks at Newlands, putting forth a dominant performance, winning 26-20 despite losing their own South African CJ Stander to a dubious red card early on.

Yet Ireland could not sustain the effort for the length of the tour and lost the final two tests, 32-26, in Johannesburg and, 19-13, in Port Elizabeth.

The interesting thing about the Johannesburg test is that Ireland was actually winning that test match 19-3 at intermission, but wilted in the second half.

This occurred only two years ago, featuring players such as Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray, Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Quinn Roux, Devin Toner, Rob Henderson, James Kilcoyne and Kieran Marmion.

Since then, there is no doubt Ireland have improved and dominated tournament rugby when they play against singular opposition and return home after each away test.

However, touring rugby is a different equation altogether. In the summer of 2017, the Irish toured the USA and Japan and had emphatic victories.

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But dear friends, there simply is no cogent evidence to support a hypothesis that under Joe Schmidt, his team can win a three-test series away from home against a tier-one nation.

In fact, I would suggest such touring for the Irish is presenting as an exposed ‘Achilles heel’.

If Australia can rise to the occasion in Brisbane on June 9th and come away with the win – will the men from the Emerald Isle have the juice to go the distance for the rest of the series?

For star players touring Australia, they are nearing the end of what has been arguably the most intense 12 months of rugby.

Out of the touring squad, no less than eight of them toured with the 2017 British and Irish Lions. They then prepared and played a brilliant Six Nations Tournament.

Furthermore, at least 17 of the squad are part of the Leinster unit who dominated the domestic scene in Europe of late.

Yet the stark reality is that this team have played an awful lot of rugby leading me to wonder if they can maintain a level of intensity and excellence for an extended period of time to ultimately reach a zenith Irish rugby have never reached before – a three-test series away from home.

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The last time the Irish came close to a three-test tour of Australia was in 1979.

Skippered by the legendary flanker Fergus Slattery and accompanied by other Irish greats Ollie Campbell, Tony Ward, Willie Duggan, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Mike Gibson, Moss Keane, Gerry McLoughlin and Phil Orr, they defeated the Wallabies twice and nearly won every match on tour.

Eventually, they stumbled when they were defeated by a Sydney Team that featured a young Mark Ella.

Ominously, Slattery was quoted after a test, “We prepared well. It was our aim to contain them in the loose, and most of the game we had them going backwards, or sideways, perhaps more sideways.

“We knew they were dangerous on the loose ball, particularly that back row of Shaw, Cornelson and Loane.”

Such a game plan would succeed today, but can the Irish get the Wallabies to go backwards and sideways for three tests?

Have Ireland prepared well enough? Could this side compete with the likes of David Pocock and Michael Hooper for loose balls?

For either team to win this series, they can take heed to what Irish Coach Noel Murphy said about his players of 1979 and apply it themselves.

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He said, “We might not be the best rugby team to come to Australia, but in terms of discipline, courage and character, I’m sure there have been none better.”