It’s 39 years since Ireland last tasted victory against the Wallabies down under. A two-game tour opened with a 27-12 win at Ballymore, before a 9-3 victory two weeks later at the SCG.
Since then, 10 games and 10 defeats, but this June presents three opportunities to end that run with tests in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. On the face of it, a win is vital. However, with Irish rugby on the crest of a wave the minimum expected should be a series victory.
Just over a year out from the World Cup, the four year cycle seems to be exactly where it needs to be. Ireland are Grand Slam champions, there’s a settled squad, with a queue of players ready to plug holes caused by any injuries or suspensions. The blend is right between youth and experience; leaders like Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Rob Kearney backed up with exciting you talent like Garry Ringrose, James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong and Jacob Stockdale.
Aside from the injured Rory Best, Joe Schmidt has resisted calls to rest his A-Listers in favour of giving more experience to the squad players. It looks to be the right call. Since the last World Cup in 2015, Schmidt has handed out 33 new caps, which is expected to rise to 35 in the next few weeks, with Ross Byrne and Tadhg Beirne set to feature at some point down under. There is very little left for Schmidt to find out about his squad, the next 12 months needs to be about finding the right blend.
Using a three test series against one of the world’s best sides as a trial-match for the ‘possibles’ would seem like a waste. If Ireland are to break their quarter final duck in Japan next year, they need to experience the winning feeling as much as possible, and no longer settle for one-off scalps.
Two years ago, Ireland won their first test match in South Africa, and although they lost the series 2-1, the overall take-away was positive. Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney were missing from that touring squad, a group whose test profile was nowhere near where it is now.
The current group have become used to winning though, a record 12 in a row to be exact. If that run ends in the coming weeks it’s no panic, but two defeats from three would be a significant confidence blow, regardless of the head-to-head record between the sides.
When the Irish squad was announced last week, the reaction from down under told us all we needed to know about the current rugby climate. It was a squad, according to Rugby.com.au, that would put bums on seats. Not only could the Wallabies test themselves against some of the world’s best players, they could also reap the financial reward. It felt strange to read, but it was true.
It can also be an ideal test-run for the World Cup off the pitch. The hotels and the travel and the homesickness and the cabin fever will all be a mental trial for what’s to come in Japan. Doing this with the vast majority of what is likely to be next year’s squad could prove to be an invaluable experience.
It's a series which won’t define the team and how they will do at the World Cup next year, but building on a dominant 12 months for Irish rugby is absolutely vital. Winning has become the norm for much of this current squad. They won't be settling for a 2-1 defeat.