With increasing number of supporters on the ground and a scrum that is ever improving, Rory Best believes Ireland are in a good place to challenge Australia for Pool C supremacy on Saturday.
Since suffering a shock home defeat to Samoa in July, Australia have rattled off four wins in five matches and become Tri Nations champions for the first time in 10 years.
They are the team with the momentum coming into this Rugby World Cup and look well placed to end a 12-match losing run at Eden Park, where they have not beaten New Zealand since September 1986.
Saturday’s clash in Auckland contains many fascinating sub plots, not least the fight for dominance in the scrum. The Wallabies had their set piece troubles against Italy in their pool opener, being shunted backwards in three scrums and conceding two penalties.
They looked like they might leak a late pushover try to the Azzurri, only for Sergio Parisse to lose control of the ball at the base.
The Irish scrum, which has benefited from the input of former All Black Greg Feek since last November, is now a stronger facet of their play than it has been in recent seasons.
Asked about the scrummaging test that awaits them, hooker Rory Best said: “A lot has been made of the Australian scrum, but during the Tri Nations they put the South Africa scrum to the sword.
“Our own scrum has come a long way over the last 12 to 18 months. We feel like we’re in quite a good place with it, and we’ll try to exert some pressure there.”
A big crowd is expected at Eden Park for the Pool C tie and Best, who will be winning his 52nd Irish cap, says he has encountered a number of New Zealanders who will be firmly in the green and white corner come kick-off time.
“Throughout our stay in New Zealand we’ve had a lot of support for this particular game, not just from the Irish but it seems for whatever reason a lot of Kiwis will be supporting us tomorrow night.
“It’s great, it will be close to a packed house here tomorrow. You want to play in the big games and on the big stage and there’s no bigger stage than at the World Cup. We’re looking forward to it.”
From the media gatherings in the Irish and Australian camps this week, two names have been mentioned more than most – Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll and Wallaby flanker and former skipper Rocky Elsom.
Both players have come in for high praise in the build-up to the game, with Adam Ashley-Cooper dubbing O’Driscoll ‘a freak, one of the best in the world’ and a player he was ‘told to study’ back in 2002. Anthony Faingaa admitted he had idolised the Dubliner as a centre.
Elsom was heralded by the Ireland players for his influence on Leinster’s breakthrough in winning the Heineken Cup for the first time in 2009, and his consistently high level of performance during that campaign.
Best has faced Elsom before at both provincial and international level. “Being from Ulster when Rocky was at Leinster, we obviously had a few bad experiences with him,” he admitted.
“The captaincy (being moved from him to James Horwill), that was something internal – you can read into it whatever you want.
“But the bottom line is Rocky’s on the team sheet for tomorrow night, he’s a quality player and we’re going to have to watch him.
“He’s a very, very strong ball carrier. He’s very aggressive in defence. Okay, we maybe know a little bit more individually about him in terms of little idiosyncrasies.
“But, at the end of the day, he’s a world class player with or without the captaincy. He looks like he’s back to the form that he showed when he brought Leinster to the Heineken Cup final.”
Rob Kearney, fit again after a recent groin strain, will make his Rugby World Cup debut at Eden Park. The full-back was one of Ireland’s standout performers against Australia on tour three years ago and has played very well against them in the two meetings since.
“I like playing against Australia, it suits the sort of game that I play and it’s always the sort of quick tempo game that I enjoy,” said the Louth native.
“I am excited about it. It’s brilliant to be back, I’m not going to change a huge amount, if it’s on I’ll have a go and try and show what the back-three are capable of.
“But I think there is going to be a lot of aerial play this weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised if both teams do a fair bit of kicking.
“And, if I had a message for the fans, it’s that I do genuinely think we’re close to clicking and getting back on the right track.”
It is that same self belief that was vital to Ireland’s memorable start against France in the 2009 Grand Slam run and last March’s inspiring Six Nations victory over England.
The men in green have not beaten one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three since Jonathan Sexton kicked them to a 15-10 win over South Africa at Croke Park in November 2009.
Kearney is certain that Ireland are capable of producing a big performance in Auckland and more importantly a winning one. “It is close, things are happening for us in training and that’s important,” he added.
“If we were training brutally and playing brutally well, then, you would have to reassess. But when you are training well and it’s not being replicated in matches, you know you are close.
“We all have confidence in our own ability and in what we can do and achieve and, hopefully, it happens this weekend.”
Follow the Ireland team in New Zealand on www.twitter.com/irfurugby.