No place to hide: A young Stephen Moore prepares to pack down at hooker for the Wallabies against Ireland back in 2008. They meet again on Saturday. Photo: Cameron SpencerLegendary former Ireland hooker Keith Wood says the Wallabies have been forced to confront their set-piece demons after running a mile from scrummaging for many years.
Wood, still the highest-scoring hooker of all time a decade after his retirement from Test rugby, believes the evolution of scrummaging laws during the past decade helped the Wallabies avoid the tough stuff at scrum time.
The 63-Test former Ireland captain said new “soft-engagement” rules, which reduced the importance of the “hit” and put more emphasis on wrestling, had forced the Wallabies to front up.
“I have always thought Australia was trying to get away from scrummaging, that they didn’t want to do it too much,” Wood said.
“A lot of the law changes that happened have helped that, but it’s different now, there is no hiding.”
The Wallabies pack survived the challenge against Italy at the weekend after being annihilated by England on opposition ball a week earlier.
Wood said Australia were hard done-by at Twickenham under referee George Clancy but showed their mettle by turning it around in Turin. He singled out starting hooker Stephen Moore for praise.
“I think he is maturing incredibly well, he is an incredibly consistent performer,” he said. “You could see when things don’t go well for them at scrum time [in England] he was absolutely angry. That’s a good thing.”
Ireland loom as a huge threat to Australia’s burgeoning confidence. Big wins against Argentina and Italy, where the Wallabies attack was given the time and space to wreak havoc, have been interspersed with tighter, high-pressure affairs with which the team has not coped.
A second-string Ireland had a field day after warming up against Samoa on Saturday. But Wood believes the home side was just whetting its appetites for higher profile clashes with Australia and New Zealand over the coming fortnight.
New coach Joe Schmidt, whose recent promotion from provincial powerhouse Leinster to the Test role mirrors the trajectory of Ewen McKenzie from the Reds, will have the full complement of Ireland veterans at his disposal, including captain Paul O’Connell, Sean O’Brien and Brian O’Driscoll.
“Nobody has any real idea what he’s going to be like [as a coach] apart from the players,” Wood said of Schmidt.
“I have spoken to a few of them, and the non-Leinster guys are a little bit taken aback by his attention to detail. He is remarkably precise, and there may be a level of adjustment they all have to go through.
“But it’s a great thing for them that they feel challenged almost immediately. O’Driscoll [who plays for Leinster] says he’s the best coach he’s ever played under, he feels he is learning something all the time.”
The last time the countries met was in the 2011 World Cup, when Ireland shocked the Wallabies with a 15-6 win in the pool stages.
Despite that loss and a fairly even ledger during the past seven years, there still exists a widespread expectation in Australia that a Test against Ireland is a “should-win”.
“I don’t think that’s fair any more,” said Wood, who played the Wallabies 10 times between 1994 and 2003, winning just one of those encounters.
“When I look at Australia from an Irish perspective, I would say we can win. Not that we should, but certainly that we can win. And if we play to the very top of our ability I would say that we both can and should.”
Wood is intrigued with the Wallabies’ flagging fortunes under McKenzie, and thinks Ireland could be well placed to test the tourists’ character at Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
“The Wallabies have foundered this year,” he said. “They are in a better place than they were at the start of the season but it is also the end of a long year.
“Ireland are playing at home, they would have to take the hope that they can win, but they will need to start the game with a high level of aggression, be incredibly accurate and incredibly effective.
“You can’t afford to make a lot of mistakes against Australia, they are always close, no matter who they are playing against.”
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