If one was told Ireland would go undefeated in the Guinness Autumn International Series, we all would have bitten the proverbial hand off. However, is this Irish team at the peak of its powers?
Ireland backed up their win over South Africa two weeks ago as they held off a determined Australia fight-back to edge victory in a thrilling game in Dublin.
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland looked in control after Simon Zebo’s try and Tommy Bowe’s breakaway score helped them lead 17-0. However, the strong-running Wallabies fought back to lead after two Nick Phipps tries and a Bernard Foley score. Johnny Sexton’s penalty levelled before the break and his two second-half penalties proved enough for the Irish. Incredible fortitude was found in the final ten minutes as Ireland forced Australian mistakes as they came barrelling towards the Irish line.
The victory was a big turnaround from their 32-15 walloping by the Wallabies 12 months ago and was further indication of how far they have come under New Zealander Schmidt.
If you were attempting to entice someone with no interest into watching rugby, Saturday was the day as the first half was riveting and pulsating, sending the sold out Aviva Stadium crowd into a frenzy. Ireland came out of the blocks at a torrential pace and capitalised on Australia’s early forced errors.
While Sexton missed one of his opening two penalty kicks inside the opening ten minutes, he atoned for it. Following an amazing turnover by Rory Best on Luke Jones, Sexton changed direction and put an inch-perfect kick into the corner over the monstrous Henry Speight that landed perfectly into the hands of Simon Zebo.
All Zebo had to do was fall over line and Ireland led 10-0. Immediately, the Australians responded and had a three on one overlap to score in the corner before Tommy Bowe shot out of the line, intercepting Nick Phipps’ pass and somehow labouring his way eighty meters down the field to score another Irish try. Magic.
For those of us watching the game in public houses with deals such as “30 cent off all draught pints for every Irish try scored” – we salivated at what was to come. What we did not expect was the Australian outburst. Somehow, within the next heart stopping fifteen minutes, Ireland found themselves behind.
With all the bravery of youthful exuberance and after Ireland doing no wrong in the opening quarter, Simon Zebo went for the jugular with an ambitious hand-off pass. The gargantuan Speight got a hand to the ball knocking it back, allowing Phipps to make up for his mistake and run back a try, bringing the Aussies back into the game at 17-7.
One must pause for a moment and consider the refereeing performance as he altered the game monumentally. New Zealander Glen Jackson had an atrocious game and this was no more evident than Bernard Foley’s try. Jackson went to the Television Match Official for a decision on a forward pass before the try was scored.
While the double movement of the try scorer was an arguable point, the pass preceding it was so clearly forward. In fact, when the TMO told him to award the try, Jackson looked puzzled, especially having seen the infringement himself on the two big screens in the Aviva.
In a case of regulation gone wrong, Jackson awarded the try. As the game continued, he missed at least a further four forward passes (by both teams), made crazy calls at the line out (although he had help from Rory Best) and allowed Australia go offside at the ruck continuously.
Foley missed the conversion in some form of ironic justice and Ireland held the lead 17-12. That didn’t last long however, as the brilliant Matt Toomua stepped inside and offloaded to Foley and the half back found his partner in crime – Phipps to score a beautiful second try as the Irish backs couldn’t hold them. Foley missed another kick from the same spot to leave Ireland level before both sides converted penalties to bring the game to deadlock after forty minutes.
The game did not continue at the frenetic early pace of the first period in the second half. In a game that came down to the kickers, Sexton was always going to beat Foley and no more tries were scored, leaving certain Irish pub owners in a much happier state. While it will go against the predominant feel good factor, Ireland were very lucky to win this game.
It is a sport that often comes down to the set piece and Ireland’s was massacred. The scrum is a region where we have started to wilt, especially when one considers what we did to the Aussies at the last World Cup, effectively beating them with scrum penalties and choke tackle turnovers.
While Jack McGrath has proven himself to be an heir to Cian Healy, he is far from the complete package and hasn’t built up the repertoire of his fellow Leinster team mate, neither in the scrum nor as a ball carrier.
On the other side, Mike Ross looks like he is on the way out. Ross was ignored for years, but that doesn’t mean that playing an excessive amount of rugby since has not put him in decline. The Irish scrum is anchored on Ross and when the Australians went after him, it reaped huge rewards. Regardless, he deserves huge credit for surviving eighty minutes in a peaceful cauldron.
As for the line out, Australia gave Luke Jones his second cap just so he could be a pain for Paul O’Connell. He followed O’Connell everywhere he went and that made it difficult for everyone else. As for Rory Best, who was excellent in the loose (made a team high 11 tackles), was dominated at the set piece.
Best’s struggles with a hookers primary job have been well noted and every time he threw to the back of the lineout, Ireland either lost the line out or Best had not thrown in straight. A leader and a fantastic servant, Best has suffered due to this flaw in his game and it is a glaring issue for those looking at playing Ireland down the line to target.
While discussing the flaws, Ireland didn’t exactly attack with vigour after the opening barrage. Henshaw is a fantastic prospect and definitely was the better of the two centres (Gordon D’Arcy), but they were consistently put back by the Australian defence, especially Kuridrani.
Ireland’s ball carrying was lacking after half time without some of the missing key men and needs to be put right. What was manifested was that Ireland’s tries came from Australian mistakes and we failed to create chances of our own. Once we stopped forcing mistakes, we began to suffer.
Without the wizardry of O’Driscoll or the ferocious ball carrying of O’Brien and Healy, we are a different force that must play off the style of their opposition as opposed to implanting their own plan upon their opponents. We had to go toe to toe with Australia, often a lethal concept. What we cannot brush over in the euphoria of victory is that were it not for Australian indiscipline and dissipated play (as well as several missed Foley kicks), Ireland would have lost the game.
Defensively, Ireland were solid, despite falling off some tackles (missed 13 tackles to 8, 139 tackles made to 91) and giving up three tries – but everyone does that against the incredibly potent Australian backs. The power of the Australians was apparent as even after the tackle, they continued to go forward and recycle at pace.
An indication of the professionalism of the modern Irish rugby age came when young players like Madigan, Ruddock, Henshaw and Dave Foley came in and hit the illustrious opposition with everything they had – especially Foley, putting his body on the line twice against the colossus Will Skelton.
Ireland didn’t panic, despite the immeasurable talent that roared against them and that is why Joe Schmidt deserves the plaudits for this game – especially when he was ill!
He prepared Ireland well and while they did not implement the game plan accurately to a tee like they did against the Springboks, they were always in a position to win. Schmidt changed the situational play at half time both defensively (putting less men into the rucks and hoping to force mistakes) and going forward by playing territory.
Defensively we morphed into a better team and Australia couldn’t deal with that as they didn’t get the requisite space and the turnovers came.
We may be in a false sense of security about Irish rugby, many negative elements are not being discussed, but on the other hand – we are still winning games and doing it without world class talents. If the likes of O’Brien, Healy, Ryan and Trimble rejoin the squad, it will be in an even better place.
The most imperative take away from this weekend is that Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe are back to their best, especially the former (what a drop goal attempt) who somehow found parity and somehow exceeded the play of the transcendent Izzy Folau.
In addition, we must rejoice that so many young players are being involved in winning teams against Southern Hemisphere teams. We would have bitten a hand off to go 3-0 in this series, but we have been left with gaping holes that Schmidt needs to fill before February.
Ireland – Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Robbie Henshaw, Gordon D’Arcy, Simon Zebo; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Mike Ross: Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell (capt); Peter O’Mahony, Rhys Ruddock, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements – Sean Cronin for Best 68 mins, Dave Foley for Toner 61, Eoin Reddan for Murray 72, Ian Madigan for D’Arcy 59, Felix Jones for Kearney 78
Not used – Dave Kilcoyne, Rodney Ah You, Tommy O’Donnell.
Australia – Israel Folau; Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tevenia Kuridrani, Matt Toomua, Henry Speight; Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps; James Slipper, Saia Fainga’a, Sekope Kepu; Sam Carter, Rob Simmons; Luke Jones, Michael Hooper (capt), Ben McCalman.
Replacements – James Hanson for Fainga’a 69, Benn Robinson for Slipper 75, Tetera Faulkner for Kepu 69, Will Skelton for Carter 72, Jake Schatz for Jones 54, Will Genia for Phipps 69, Quade Cooper for Foley 65, Kurtley Beale for Kuridrani 46.
Referee – Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Garbh Madigan, Pundit Arena
Featured image By Hoops341 (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.