Ireland v Australia, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 8.0 – Live on Virgin Media Two and Amazon Prime
First and foremost, it’s Ireland versus Australia. This has always been a keenly contested and entertaining rivalry studded with great games. So to beat the Wallabies is always something to be prized in its own right, and this 37th meeting carries with it plenty else.
A win for Ireland would equal the all-time record of a dozen successive home victories, established between November 2016 and November 2018, and so, eh, make the Aviva something of a fortress!
Victory tonight would set up a chance for a record 13th home win in a row in the seismic Six Nations round two game against France on February 11th (by which stage Les Bleus may have extended the all-time French record of successive wins to 14). It would also make this the second Irish team to beat New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in the same year, emulating the feat of Joe Schmidt’s side in 2016.
What’s more, a win tonight would also cement Ireland’s place atop the end-of-year world rankings for the first time ever. However, a defeat would leave the door ajar for France to assume the number one ranking by beating Japan in Toulouse on Sunday. The All Blacks and, at a major push, South Africa could also earn the number one ranking.
The Wallabies will love all this idle chit-chat, for these will all be relative irrelevancies for the two teams come kick-off. After losing to Italy last week in Florence – seemingly still the ultimate indignity – Dave Rennie has said simply that his wounded team want to make a statement tonight.
Understandably, Rennie heavily rotated his squad last week for the third Test of a five-match end-of-year tour at the end of a gruelling 14-Test year. But the refreshed side which kicks-off tonight is the team which nearly beat France in Paris a fortnight ago.
Their much-improved scrum and maul largely negated two normally potent French strengths. They scored two fine tries, one a length-of-the-pitch effort off turnover ball. Ultimately France were indebted to their manic Shaun Edwards-driven defence and, after the impact of Mathieu Jalibert off the bench, Damian Penaud’s wonderful 76th-minute try.
Australia have won just four and lost 11 of their 15 Test matches since the beginning of November 2021, but each of their last three games have been one-point margins. They have barely been able to string two good performances together, much less wins, but they’re well capable of big one-off performances, as they also showed when beating the Springboks and when robbed of a famous comeback win over the All Blacks in Melbourne.
Go through a team containing James Slipper, their lineout specialist, Nick Frost, the powerful and underrated Jed Holloway, Michel Hooper, the experience of Nic White and Bernard Foley at halfback, a young midfield which has impressed on this tour, the speed of Tom Wright and promise of Mark Nawaqanitawase on the wings, and as Mike Catt said on Friday this is a dangerous team packed with speed and athleticism which will be highly motivated. And as Johnny Sexton also noted, they’ll revel in being underdogs.
One of the things that’s killed them has been their discipline.
The Wallabies are the most ill-disciplined Tier One team this calendar year (conceding 13.8 penalties per game), and on this tour have conceded 42 penalties in three games. After their review of what he calls DAPs (dumb-ass penalties) Rennie confirmed that this had cost one player in selection.
This Irish team prides themselves on their discipline and with the same pack that started all four Tests against the All Blacks and Springboks restored, ought to lay the foundations for another high-quality performance.
Their lineout has had the best return of any team in this autumn. Tadhg Beirne has been sensational. Jamison Gibson-Park should be even more match tuned and Jimmy O’Brien provides balance in their roving back three.
In truth they’ve been exposed out wide defensively and lacked accuracy in failing to locate free men on the edges. The pity is that the forecast isn’t nice. But in the presumption that they will rectify those failings, Ireland have the means to win a more competitive game than the bookies, and others, might anticipate. Ireland have won four of the last five meetings between the countries, but all of those victories have been by five points or less.
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).
Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Joe McCarthy (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Craig Casey (Munster), Jack Crowley (Munster), Bundee Aki (Connacht).
AUSTRALIA: Andrew Kellaway; Mark Nawaqanitawase, Len Ikitau, Hunter Paisami, Tom Wright; Bernard Foley, Nic White; James Slipper (capt), David Porecki, Allan Ala’alatoa; Nick Frost, Cadeyrn Neville; Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Rob Valetini.
Replacements: Folau Fainga’a, Tom Robertson, Taniela Tupou, Will Skelton, Pete Samu, Jake Gordon, Noah Lolesio, Jordan Petaia.
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (NZR)
Assistant referees: James Doleman (NZR), Tual Trainini (FFR)
TMO: Stuart Terheege (RFU)
Overall head-to-head: Played 36. Ireland 13 wins. 1 draw, Australia 22 wins.
Betting (Paddy Power): 1-5 Ireland, 22-1 Draw, 7-2 Australia. Handicap odds (Australia +12pts) 10-11 Ireland, 18-1 Draw, 10-11 Australia.
Forecast: Ireland to win.