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Amongst the raft of changes to Ireland’s starting side for Melbourne, the one that may cause most angst for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika isn’t the recall of Johnny Sexton.
There’s been plenty of chat about their relationship given Cheika coached at Irish powerhouse Leinster when Sexton was coming through as an ambitious, abrasive and talented fly-half.
Cheika has been pumping Sexton’s tyres up for weeks, and after he was named in the No.10 jersey as the tourists aim to keep the series alive in the second Test on Saturday night, the Wallabies boss was at it again.
“He’s the maestro,” Cheika said of Sexton. “He’s running the show. He’s in charge. He’s directing traffic all the time, he’s a great competitor and he’s a great defensive player… he’s got a great kicking game too.”
Sexton was one of eight changes that Joe Schmidt made in response to their 18-9 loss in Brisbane, and the Irish team is now very close to the line-up that steamrolled their Six Nations rivals last campaign.
There’s no doubt that Sexton is top-shelf and his combination with Conor Murray in the halves will give Ireland the swagger they need to force a series decider in Sydney.
But the inclusion of Devin Toner might have a greater effect on Cheika’s tactics at AAMI Park.
Cheika also coached the 210cm, 130kg second-rower at Leinster, but it’s only over the last three seasons that he’s become a consistent and critical part of the Irish pack.
Ireland will be ready to throw Toner up at No.2 in the lineout all night, especially given the frailties shown by Brandon Paenga-Amosa on debut at hooker for the Wallabies last weekend.
The Queensland Reds rookie missed the target with three of his throws, and with rain forecast for Melbourne and the arrival of the beastly Toner, he faces a daunting task at lineout time.
It’s why Cheika will be likely be eager to keep the ball in play as much as possible, and why Schmidt will want Ireland to live on the edges.
Murray and Sexton will be aiming plenty of their kicks at the sidelines to put Paenga-Amosa under the pump. It means Wallabies wingers Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete will be protecting their edges with plenty of vigilance and Israel Folau will be on high alert in defence too.
With the ball, the Wallabies would be crazy not to continue with their use of contestable kicks given the two tries scored in the opening Test came from momentum generated through kick accuracy and pressure.
Of Australia’s 25 kicks, 13 of those were attacking kicks – mostly for Folau and Haylett-Petty.
It’s attractiveness is boosted when David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Caleb Timu, Pete Samu and Tolu Latu are ready to pounce on a back-tracking opposition.
It marks a bit of a shift in Cheika’s mindset. He put more emphasis on the Wallabies turning up for the June Tests fitter, and it translates into more confidence in defending for longer periods if possession is turned over from kicks.
Time will tell if Cheika wants to kick more against the quick-to-react All Blacks, but for now, the aerial arts are in. Is it too much to ask Folau to take on Toner in the lineout?