While all talk in Australian media this week has been based around the Pocock return against Samoa, there are far more pressing matters for the Wallabies occurring in the North.
On Saturday night at 11pm, Wales play Ireland, with both teams announced nearing full strength. This is integral viewing for any Wallabies supporter, as it is likely Australia will need to defeat both teams if they’re to make the World Cup Final.
It’s been on the tips of lips of rugby fans for months now, but the true test of this World Cup is to determine whether the South still reigns supreme as the greatest rugby hemisphere in the world.
For many, an argument could certainly be formed that the tide is starting to turn. England are coming into this World Cup in their best form since 2003, and have arguably announced the strongest squad in the tournament. Wales have defied the odds time and time again over the past 18 months and have made themselves serious title contenders.
Ireland are world beaters and, while they may have had a slouch in form leading into this World Cup, they boast the best halves pairing in the world of Jonathon Sexton and Conor Murray – you’d be a fool to count them out.
Why is this weekend’s game between Ireland and Wales necessary viewing for any Wallabies supporter?
Firstly, let’s state the obvious.
The Wallabies play Wales in the second round of the pool stage on the 29th of September. Despite having the wood on them for the last decade, it seems Wales have reached the potential they have been teasing since the 2011 World Cup.
Also, Warren Gatland has been able to assemble a squad that can effectively employ his ‘Warrenball’ technique. Unlike the Wales of old, who relied on Jamie Roberts to give them front-foot from the crash ball, new Welsh No. 12 Hadleigh Parkes has allowed for Warrenball to be remodelled.
Parkes can play both physical and direct but is also a proficient passer – which gives more opportunity to dangerous ball runners Jonathan Davis, George North and Liam Williams.
Given the suspect backline defence of the Wallabies in recent years, particularly if they decide to continue with a Samu Kerevi-James O’Connor centre pairing, this backline could be increasingly difficult to shut down. I’m sure Gatland will look to isolate O’Connor and take advantage of his defensive incompetence.
Fortunately for Australia, Wales’ first choice No.10 has been ruled out of the World Cup, forcing Gatland to tinker with his backline.
It is presumed Dan Biggar will be his choice No.10 who, despite an excellent kicking game, is not the same threat in attack. However, on Saturday, Gatland will give 21-year-old Rhys Patchell a chance to press his claim for the starting flyhalf position. His performance against Ireland will ultimately set the tone for Wales’ coming into the World Cup and is therefore critical viewing for the Wallabies.
Now, for the curveball.
After a sensational 2018 – which saw Ireland complete a Grand Slam, win the Lansdowne Cup with a 2-1 victory over Australia and defeat the All Blacks in a gritty game in Dublin – Ireland’s dream form has slumped to a halt. Losses to Wales and England – including a 57-15 trouncing in Twickenham – really rained on Ireland’s parade and has put enormous pressure on coach Joe Schmidt to reinvent Ireland’s attack.
In 2018, Schmidt was applauded for excellent execution of what was ultimately a basic game plan that involved holding onto the ball for numerous phases and waiting for the defending team to commit a penalty.
It relied on Ireland constantly getting front foot ball through their strong forward pack and, if that wasn’t successful, a box-kick from Conor Murray, which would mostly see Ireland regain possession. While it wasn’t the most exciting footy, it worked.
The game against Wales on Saturday, is a chance for Schmidt to reinvent Irish rugby – in particular, the return of Jonny Sexton at flyhalf is the key to Irish success.
During Schmidt’s time at Leinster, the Dublin-based side was renowned for their expansive attacking game plan. Many pundits are questioning whether this is something that Schmidt has left up his sleeve to exploit at the World Cup. If he does, you can bet it’ll be on show Saturday against Wales – and it’ll make Ireland very dangerous.
So, how does Ireland’s performance impact Australia?
Presuming the Wallabies top their pool and win their quarter-final, they will play the winner of Ireland vs New Zealand or South Africa. It’s a crazy prediction, but it would be unsurprising to see Ireland come out on top against either of those teams.
Already, Ireland have shown they have the goods to best the All Blacks and, of those two southern hemisphere powerhouses, New Zealand is not a side they’ll struggle with in the quarter.
South Africa, however, are another kettle of fish as Ireland play right into their hands with their forward dominated game plan, and will ultimately struggle to get front foot ball against the Springboks pack.
If Ireland can re-find some form in the game against Wales and re-spark their attacking philosophy, they will certainly threaten the Springboks.
While the Irish forwards might not offer the same punch as the South Africa pack, they certainly have more danger in the backline, complete with powerful ball runners Bundee Aki and Keith Earls, creative ball players Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray, Rob Kearney and Robbie Henshaw and the key to Ireland’s potential expansive attack, game breaker Jacob Stockdale.
If Schmidt can reformulate the Irish attack, they certainly have the players in the backline to execute.
And of course, once they beat either South Africa or New Zealand in the quarters – they’ll be off to face the Wallabies in the semi.
Whichever way you turn, the outcome of this game will impact the Wallabies this World Cup.
1. Healy 2. Best (c) 3. Furlong 4. Ryan 5. Kleyn 6. Stander 7. Van Der Flier 8. Conan 9. Murray 10. Sexton 11. Earls 12. Aki 13. Henshaw 14. Larmour 15. Kearney 16. Cronin 17. Kilkoyne 18. Porter 19. Henderson 20. Ruddock 21. McGrath 22. Carty 23. Ringrose
1. Jones 2. Dee 3. Francis 4. Ball 5 AW. Jones (c) 6. Wainwright 7. Tipuric 8. Moriarty 9. Williams 10. Patchell 11. Adams 12. Parkes 13. Davies 14. North 15. Halfpenny 16. Owens 17. Smith 18. Lewis 19. Beard 20. Navidi 21. Davies 22. Biggar 23. Williams