The Wallabies and Ireland face off in a do-or-die series decider at Allianz Stadium in Sydney on Saturday in the most anticipated match of the weekend.
With the series squared at 1-1, it is all to play for. Joe Schmidt has not wavered from his promise that he would use this series as an opportunity to experiment before the nitty-gritty of the Six Nations and World Cup next year.
Schmidt has made five changes to his starting line-up and although it is a roll of the dice, he seems to have gotten the balance right between testing new combinations and being competitive.
If the uncapped Ross Byrne makes his debut from the bench in the third Test, head coach Schmidt will have used all 32 members of his touring squad during this series.
One cannot help but admire Schmidt for sticking to his word on his rotation policy but some feel he should not experiment in a series decider. For example, the decision to bring Bundee Aki back into the line-up for the mightily impressive Garry Ringrose is a questionable one, especially considering Ringrose’s recent good form.
With players like Aki as well as prop Jack McGrath and hooker Sean Cronin coming into the side, Schmidt is going for a more combative side while he wants Ireland to gain an edge at set-piece time.
Referring specifically to Leinsterman Cronin, Schmidt said: “We’d love to see him do really well in the set-pieces.
“We obviously had Niall Scannell doing really well last week and Rob Herring has been super – I thought his performance off the bench last week was really good.
“The other thing from Sean is that dynamic ball-carry, that dynamic line speed he can bring, and he’s an incredibly combative character, so we’re looking forward to seeing all those elements, really.”
The Wallabies, meanwhile, will be without arguably their best player in Will Genia, which is a significant blow for them. Genia offers them that X-factor on attack, often finding a way to unlock opposition defences where few others can.
Nick Phipps starts at scrum-half in place of the injured Genia while David Pocock has been moved to number eight, with Caleb Timu dropping out of the squad and Lukhan Tui brought in as blindside flanker to bolster the line-out.
Ireland haven’t won a series in Australia since 1979 and this week surely represents their best chance yet to break the duck and send out a statement to their contenders ahead of the World Cup.
Players to watch:
For Australia: Lukhan Tui will make his first start for the Wallabies and how he measures up to the physical confrontation against the likes of CJ Stander will be interesting to see. Australia must up their game in that area and therefore Tui will be looking to lay down a marker early on.
For Ireland: Keep an eye on Jacob Stockdale, who makes his return to the starting line-up on the left wing. Stockdale burst on to the scene at the Six Nations with seven tries as Ireland marched to the Grand Slam. Will he be able to replicate that devastating form or have opposition defences worked out a way to stop him?
Head-to-head: Bundee Aki comes up against Kurtley Beale in the inside centre channel. Both might play in the same position but they are polar opposites in terms of style. Aki is a virtual battering ram, averse to passing and one to relish the physical confrontation. Beale, in contrast, is all subtlety and flair and more of a creative force for his side. It should be a wonderful contest.
2018: Ireland won 26-21 in Melbourne 2018: Australia won 18-9 in Brisbane 2016: Ireland won 27-24 in Dublin 2014: Ireland won 26-23 in Dublin 2013: Australia won 32-15 in Dublin 2011: Ireland won 15-6 in Auckland (RWC) 2010: Australia won 22-15 in Brisbane 2009: The sides drew 20-20 in Dublin
Prediction: A close, cagey encounter with Ireland to prevail by 3.
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Lukhan Tui, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 Scott Sio Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Tom Robertson, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Ned Hanigan, 21 Pete Samu, 22 Joe Powell, 23 Reece Hodge
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Peter O’Mahony, 6 CJ Stander, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Jack McGrath Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Tadhg Beirne, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Jordan Larmour
Date: Saturday, June 23 Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney Kick-off: 20:00 local (11:00 BST, 10:00 GMT) Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (France) Assistant referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa) Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
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