SYDNEY (Reuters) – Six Nations champions Ireland have a gilt-edged opportunity to send a strong message to their fellow World Cup contenders with a victory in the series-deciding third test against Australia on Saturday.
The Irish have not won a series in Australia since 1979 but after rebounding from a Brisbane loss with victory in Melbourne last week, Joe Schmidt’s side will be full of confidence heading into the clash of titans at Sydney Football Stadium.
The Wallabies had looked vulnerable before the series began, but a strong defensive effort against an under-strength Irish side earned them a surprise 18-9 victory in Brisbane.
With star flyhalf Johnny Sexton restored to the starting lineup, the Irish underscored how good the world’s second best side are in Melbourne, producing a performance that Schmidt’s coaching staff are expecting to build upon on in Sydney.
“I… expect us to get better… and I think if that’s the case, then we’re looking at a pretty special 80 minutes on the weekend,” Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby said earlier this week.
“We’re playing for something special, something that hasn’t been done.
“To win a test series in the southern hemisphere is a difficult thing to do. We found that out in South Africa when we were 1-0 up and we came away with a 2-1 loss.
“These experiences are great for what will happen hopefully in 15, 16 months time,” he added of next year’s World Cup in Japan.
For the Sydney match, Schmidt made five changes to a side that had dominated the second test to the point the 26-21 scoreline was hardly a fair reflection of how much his team had controlled the game.
He bulked up his loose forward trio, with Leinster number eight Jack Conan brought into the side and captain Peter O’Mahony moving from blindside flanker to the unfamiliar openside of the scrum.
Number eight CJ Stander has moved to blindside and with no specialist openside flanker in the side, Schmidt’s plans to attack the breakdown with bulk rather than speed has indicated a desire to continue to target the dual threat of David Pocock and Michael Hooper and blow them off the ball.
The Wallabies have made minimal changes to the team that was utterly dominated in the second test with Lukhan Tui brought in as blindside flanker to bolster their lineout.
The loss of scrumhalf Will Genia to a broken arm, however, could be pivotal.
Replacement Nick Phipps has battled behind Jake Gordon for game time with the New South Wales Waratahs in Super Rugby this season and is unlikely to provide the running threat or delivery to flyhalf Bernard Foley that Genia does.