Cheika labels Ireland favorite ahead of 1st test

BRISBANE, Australia — Ireland coach Joe Schmidt's decision to bench star flyhalf Johnny Sexton has slightly confounded the effort of Wallabies coach Michael Cheika to paint Ireland an overwhelming favorite to win Saturday's first test match at Suncorp Stadium.

Cheika worked with typical tenacity this week to claim underdog status for the Wallabies as they embark on a series against the No. 2-ranked Irish who are unbeaten in their last 15 games.

Australia hasn't been beaten at home by Ireland in 39 years but Cheika isn't prepared to allow history to disturb his portrayal of Ireland as favorite, which would make a win by the home team more meritorious.

Schmidt has muddied the waters a little by naming Sexton, a veteran of 73 caps, on the bench while naming Joey Carberry to start in the No. 10 jersey for only the third time in his career. His previous starts in 10 tests were against the United States and Fiji.

Schmidt said his decision was based on the heavy workload Sexton had faced in leading Leinster to victory in the European Champions Cup. Carbery, who will shortly leave Leinster to join Munster, has been less burdened.

"Some of those players have had some reasonably tough weeks and it was an opportunity for some of those guys," Schmidt said. "We really wanted to get Joey out there at some stage and we thought the best way was to give him the longest preparation window."

Cheika, who coached Sexton at Leinster, was taken aback to hear he had been benched.

"You'd be a brave man telling Sexton he wasn't playing," Cheika said. "I would tell him he wasn't playing and he'd almost rip my head off every time."

Cheika maintains that Ireland, the Six Nations champions, are the favorites for Saturday's match and the series.

"We're playing against a mighty opposition as well; they're the best team Ireland has had since the start of their rugby history. They're coming down here as No.2 in the world and they can claim that they're underdogs as much as they like but they're certainly going to be the favorites going off the back of the season they've had."

Ireland has won three of its last four tests against Australia but lost when the teams last met in Brisbane in 2010. Schmidt batted away the favorite tag.

"Tags are irrelevant at kickoff, aren't they?" he said. "You can say what you like about opponents, it's what you do on the pitch and I have no doubt that Cheik's very confident that they can deliver a performance that will give them the margin on the scoreboard they need.

"The last time they played at Suncorp they beat the All Blacks. It wasn't some fortuitous victory."

In other tests on a busy international Saturday, Argentina plays Wales and Japan meets Italy. Fiji plays Samoa and Tonga meets Georgia in Suva in the Pacific Nations Cup.

Samoa was a late addition to the PNC after the withdrawal of Romania and hope to tune its game ahead of World Cup qualifiers.

"We have our best players from around world here with us," coach Dickie Tafua said. "These players know that this is a good opportunity for them to perform as we put a strong team together, not only for the PNC but for our 2019 RWC qualifiers as well."

Wales will take confidence into their clash with Argentina after their win over South Africa last weekend lifted them to fifth on world ranking lists.

Coach Warren Gatland has made eight changes to his side for the match at San Juan, handing the captaincy to Cory Hill while resting regular captain Ellis Jenkins.

"Ellis is fine. He is a little bit frustrated," Gatland said. "He had a good game last weekend but we have said all along this tour is about giving players an opportunity."

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