Ireland vs. Australia: Key Battles to Watch

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistNovember 15, 2013

Ireland vs. Australia: Key Battles to Watch

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    Ireland and Australia each eased to rather rudimentary wins on their most recent outings, the Shamrock overseeing a 40-9 victory over Samoa while Italy fell to the Wallabies in Turin 50-20.

    This weekend, though, the two international giants meet at the Aviva Stadium and are bound to prove a far more difficult test of each other's depth, with Ewen McKenzie's visitors striving to stave away a second defeat of their tour.

    Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt's Test tenure as Irish boss only got off to its start last week, but back-to-back wins over Australia would certainly give the New Zealander some personal satisfaction to go along with a team win.

    With the back lines taking up most of the storylines, read on for a preview of some of the most important individual matchups to watch come 5:45 p.m. GMT on Saturday, the winner of each having a very real impact on who emerges as victor. 

1. Rob Kearney vs. Israel Folau

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    Although he didn't get on the score sheet himself, Rob Kearney joined Israel Folau as some of the more impressive full-backs last weekend, each contributing the most metres carried for their respective teams.

    Due to Leigh Halfpenny's prominence in the British and Irish Lions Tests, Kearney won't have got a look-in against Folau over the summer, but will undoubtedly have studied his potential in Australia's No. 15 jersey, all the same.

    A natural winger, Folau doesn't possess the same positioning skills and security under the boot that his opposite man does, so Jonny Sexton may look to utilise the high ball when possible.

    That being said, what the Wallabies' full-back lacks in aerial presence sometimes, he makes up for in sheer running ability and Kearney will have a job in restraining Australia's top try scorer for 2013 when he dips into the back line.

2. Sean O'Brien vs. Michael Hooper

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    Sean O'Brien has been through his own patches of slumped form, but recent months have been some of the best in Sean O'Brien's career, not least of which when he pulls on the green of Ireland.

    This weekend, fans get to see more of the No. 7 battle which could have occurred more during the British and Irish Lions tour, were it not for the two flankers chopping and changing starting positions at all the wrong moments.

    That being said, the openside drama is set to take place in its fullest on Saturday and there's a good chance that these two will come face-to-face at the breakdown for a great portion of the meeting.

    Hooper is a dynamic and tough figure to beat at the ruck, who won't shy away from carrying ball in hand, either. O'Brien, often known as the Tullow Tank, isn't far off those specifications himself.

    Some of the best back-row talent in the world is going to spark in Dublin this weekend, O'Brien and Hooper's head-to-head being the best of it.

3. Luke Marshall vs. Matt Toomua

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    Two fairly unseasoned centres in their own rights, but two figures who hold great potential in becoming staples of their respective national teams for years to come.

    Luke Marshall comes into Schmidt's side in the place of Gordon Darcy and lines up opposite Matt Toomua, who once again displayed against Italy just what an important presence he is for the Australian cause.

    In hindsight, one wonders why McKenzie was ever trying to mould the Brumbies youngster into his starting fly-half in the first place considering the great talent that's been evident since he switched to centre halfway through the Rugby Championship.

    In the position, Toomua brings his No. 10 brain to the mix with some centre brawn and can shift the ball with some creative ingenuity or take it up himself, not too unlike Marshall.

    Marshall, receiving his fourth Test cap this weekend, will be relying on partner Brian O'Driscoll for some guidance throughout, but there's a chance that the pairing of today and tomorrow could produce some great results itself.

4. Paul O'Connell vs. James Horwill

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    After missing out on a starting place last weekend, Paul O'Connell comes back in to captain his team against the Wallabies, while James Horwill was recently stripped of his captaincy.

    Two locks who couldn't be in more opposite positions in terms of the leadership of their teams—one on shaky ground while the other reigns as veteran—these two will have a telling impact on their packs' performances.

    The most important contribution either giant makes, however, could be at the set piece, where both sides will be hoping to improve after their most recent outings.

    Ireland, in particular, will look at the line-out as being in need of renovations, considering they lost half of their own throw-ins against Samoa last weekend, and can't afford to be as wasteful with Horwill and co. lurking.

5. Jonny Sexton vs. Quade Cooper

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    Not only has Quade Cooper's reintroduction into the Australian setup been a success, but the fly-half has been rewarded with his increased sense of maturity by being named McKenzie's vice-captain.

    Meanwhile, Jonny Sexton serves a similar role for his squad and will be looking to make a seamless return to the international fray this weekend, having been rested in place of Paddy Jackson against Samoa.

    Since moving to Racing Metro, what's stood out for Sexton is his ability to take the ball into contact at pace, something Cooper usually tries to do with a bit more of a technical edge rather than taking full impact.

    With the two fly-halves differing in style quite greatly this Saturday, it will be an interesting test to see which No. 10 comes out on top.

    As well as their more direct battles, the kicking game will be a mission for the two going on under the surface, with both playmakers likely to use the boot in gaining territory, high ball play depending a lot on what weather we see in Dublin.