5 Dec, 14:49
The Ireland Under-19 squad to face Australia Schools at Ravenhill on Saturday week (December 14) has been announced.
Connolly, who spent a year coaching Dublin club Old Belvedere in the 1990s, is expected to pair Stirling Mortlock, his tour captain, and Lote Tuqiri in an experimental midfield for Sunday's Test match against Ireland. Stephen Larkham should slot back in at out-half.
The Brisbane-born coach is still searching for his perfect centre combination. He said: "There's no doubt the performances this year at number 10 and in the midfield have been inconsistent. We've played some 10 out of 10 stuff, but we've played a fair bit of two out of 10 stuff as well. That's a concern.
"The players we have are getting older. Chris Latham at full-back has been an exception in that the older he's got, the better he's played, the harder he's trained and the more focused and professional he's become. So that's a challenge for us. As we saw last year, depth is an issue in the Australian back line."
Matt Giteau, who became the highest paid footballer in any code of 'football' in Australia by signing to play for the Western Force in the 2007 Super 14 championship, is set to remain at scrum half for the Lansdowne Road encounter.
'Gits', 24, moved from the Brumbies to Western Force in a three-year deal reported to be worth Aus$4.5 million (2.7 million). Connolly said of Giteau's performance in last weekend's 25-18 defeat of Italy: "He was under more pressure (today), but I still thought he went okay."
Australia have beaten Ireland 18 times in the sides' 25 Test meetings to date. Ireland's seventh and last win was at Lansdowne Road in November 2002 when Ronan O'Gara kicked six penalties in an 18-9 victory. The previous six Irish wins came in 1958 (Lansdowne Road), 1967 (2) (Lansdowne Road and Sydney Cricket Ground), 1968 (Lansdowne Road) and 1979 (2) (Lansdowne Road and Brisbane (Ballymore)).
Western Force lock Nathan Sharpe has started all four of Australia's encounters with Ireland since 2003. Since that 18-9 win at Lansdowne, Ireland have lost all four of their games against the Wallabies. Sharpe, 28, is the Australian squad's most recent father - his wife Jess gave birth to baby son Cooper just weeks before the beginning of the European tour.
Mat Rogers, who kicked 15 points on his last visit to Lansdowne Road, received his fair share of criticism for a poor display at out-half in the Wallabies' 25-18 win over Italy last weekend. Speculation is rife that Connolly may choose to revert Stephen Larkham, who lined out at inside centre in Rome, back to number 10, with Rogers dropping to the bench.
Naturally Rogers, 30, would like another shot at the out-half spot. He said: "I actually felt that I went better (in Rome) than I did the week before (against Wales). Personally, I felt a lot more comfortable. Speaking to Steve (Larkham), he also feels the same way. Last week was the first time we had played in nine weeks, and for anyone to believe we will immediately play the house down is a bit unrealistic.
"I thought we worked better together, although we didn't have the go-forward ball we probably would have liked. It can only get better and, with another opportunity, the team can only perform better. You have to give a team a chance to gel in different situations. We're not that far away."
With George Smith on Australia 'A' duty this week, Sydney-born flanker Phil Waugh should regain the number 7 jersey for this weekend's clash with Ireland. Should he play, it will be Waratahs forward's 54th cap and fifth appearance against the men in green.
Stephen Larkham, the Brumbies' stalwart out-half, is just seven games short of becoming only the third Australian player to reach 100 Test caps. Next year's World Cup in France is seen very much as the 32-year-old's international swansong. He is one of four vice-captains Connolly has appointed for this tour.
John Connolly and his assistant Scott Johnson watch the Australian players go through their paces at Wanderers FC on Monday afternoon. Since taking over as head coach in February of this year, Connolly has guided the Wallabies to six wins (including June's success over Ireland), four defeats and a draw. They lost their last two Tri-Nations games to New Zealand and South Africa before drawing with Wales and then beating Italy in Rome last Saturday.
Connolly is planning to switch noted winger Lote Tuqiri to outside centre for Sunday's visit to Lansdowne Road. Partnering him in midfield should be tour captain Stirling Mortlock who seems suitably recovered from knee surgery, judging by his performance against Italy.
Both Tuqiri and Mortlock stand 6ft 3in tall and weigh in and around the 16-stone mark, making them probably the biggest centre combination the Aussies have ever fielded. Connolly summed the duo by saying: "It's a lot more solid-looking midfield, isn't it, in terms of strength and power?"
The Australian line-up for Sunday's Test will not be confirmed until after Wednesday's 'A' international in Limerick.
**All photos by Donall Farmer of Inpho Photography**