O'Driscoll: RWC ambition starts against Wallabies
Updated: September 15, 2011, 19:56
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) For Brian O'Driscoll, it's now or never for Ireland to make its mark at the Rugby World Cup.
Yet to progress beyond the quarterfinals in the six previous editions, four straight losses ended only by an unconvincing 22-10 win over the United States, and next facing Tri-Nations champion Australia - the portents aren't encouraging that this time will be any different for the Irish.
But O'Driscoll is enlivened by the possibility of Ireland beating the Wallabies at a World Cup for the first time in five attempts.
"The occasion to shine is against the best teams in the world and Australia are ranked No. 2 in the world. Why not take the opportunity now? It might not present itself again,'' O'Driscoll said of Saturday's Pool C match. "I'm excited about the prospect of taking Australia on.
"All of the hard work that I have put in over the last 10-12 weeks culminates in this. It's now or never, and hopefully it's now. "
There are some factors in Ireland's favor.
The return of prop Cian Healy, scrumhalf Eoin Reddan, fullback Rob Kearney and flanker Sean O'Brien have considerably strengthened a team which has had very close results in its last three matches against Australia, including a draw and two losses by fewer than eight points, since the last World Cup.
The Wallabies have also been forced to realign their backline defense to cover for the injured Digby Ioane, the star winger who tackles in the flyhalf channel in place of Quade Cooper.
The options to fill that role appear to be either Adam Ashley-Cooper or Anthony Fainga'a, but Ireland's free-running backrow of O'Brien, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip will be looking to get over the gain line in that channel and recycle quick front-foot ball for the backs to use.
"The game today is all about the speed of your ruck ball and not allowing them the chance to realign and reset their defense,'' O'Driscoll said. "Speed of ruck ball and the collision areas are the difference between sides being in trouble or defensive lines being able to be set.''
Australia blindside flanker Rocky Elsom, who played in Leinster's 2008 Heineken Cup-winning team, is a fan of Ireland's loose forwards.
"Particularly in the back row, they've got a lot of ball-carrying options,'' he said. "With the 6, 7, 8 combination, they've got a lot of leg drive with those blokes. They're probably one of the more underrated back rows in test rugby. We've got to be on our game.''
The match could ultimately result in the losing team joining the side of the knockout draw that contains the defending champion Springboks and top-ranked All Blacks. That has Wallabies coach Robbie Deans opting for continuity in his starting-team selection.
Ioane's fractured thumb has allowed James O'Connor to return after a two-game disciplinary ban. The only change to the run-on XV from the 32-6 win over Italy, O'Connor takes over the goalkicking duties and slots in at right wing to force Ashley-Cooper to switch to the left.
The versatile Ashley-Cooper will have played at Nos. 15, 14, 13 and 11 for the Wallabies after Saturday and he may yet switch again in the match, with the threat of O'Driscoll in his fourth and final World Cup causing a level of consternation for Australia.
"We'll be trying to limit his moments this week, but he's a class act,'' Deans said of O'Driscoll. "He's been around for a long time, played some great rugby. The boys have got a lot of respect for him.''
O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy will form a record center pairing when they run out for their 45th match together at Eden Park, a midfield combination that Wallabies No. 12 Pat McCabe compares with New Zealand's and South Africa's as among the best in the world.
But O'Driscoll also has praise for Wallabies playmakers Will Genia and Cooper and the strings they pull in a backline brimming with attacking brio.
"They are often innovators when it comes to back-end play and they are forward thinkers in that regard,'' O'Driscoll said. "You do see other countries trying to copy some of the things they do but, at the same time, we feel as though we have the capability of shutting them down if we defend accordingly. We have to have big belief in our own quality and we feel on our day we are capable of beating anyone.''
Deans, as much as anyone, is aware of that.
"Every time you strap on the boots there's the potential to fail. These blokes live with that, we all live with that. But we also choose that,'' he said. "We love what we do. We've got an opportunity to succeed as well, more importantly.''
Australia: Kurtley Beale, James O'Connor, Anthony Fainga'a, Pat McCabe, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Quade Cooper, Will Genia; Radike Samo, David Pocock, Rocky Elsom, James Horwill (captain), Dan Vickerman, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu. Reserves: Tatafu Polota-Nau, James Slipper, Rob Simmons, Ben McCalman, Scott Higginbotham, Luke Burgess, Drew Mitchell.
Ireland team: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Brian O'Driscoll (captain), Gordon D'Arcy, Keith Earls, Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, Stephen Ferris, Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Tom Court, Donnacha Ryan, Denis Leamy, Conor Murray, Ronan O'Gara, Andrew Trimble.