‘Heroic’ and ‘brave’ are words that often get thrown around when talking about any team has gone to the well, but they don’t quite suffice when describing Ireland’s efforts on Saturday evening. Beating an Australian side that had an abundance of pace, power and skill across their squad with four players out of position in the backline is one of those things that has to be seen to be believed.
Ireland dominated every facet of play for the opening 30 minutes, going into a 17-nil lead, and reducing a talented Australian team to repeated infringements at the breakdown and ref-whingeing. A string of injuries swung the momentum completely, and when the Wallabies scored three tries in the space of 18 minutes, a rout was on the cards. Schmidt-coached teams are normally renowned for their technical excellence, and while that wasn’t missing, Ireland displayed buckets of heart and soul to fight their way back into a game that they had no right to be in.
All Hands On Deck
Ireland’s defence looked capable of handling Australia for most of the first half, and even with the limited territory and possession that the Wallabies did have in that period, they were harassed into handling errors (Will Genia and Bernard Foley in particular) by aggressive Irish line speed.
Michael Cheika employed simple tactics in the second half to take advantage of Ireland’s injury-decimated backline. Effective midfield crashes from Reece Hodge, Tevita Kuridrani and Israel Folau were followed up by a few forward carries to suck in defenders, and then the ball was moved wide to the wing, where Dane Haylett-Petty flourished.
With so many changes, Ireland’s defensive structure was never going to hold up, and they began standing off Australia at rucks in the third quarter, but their desire to get back and make covering tackles when the first line was breached was praiseworthy:
It was telling that two of the most influential hits came from Kieran Marmion and Simon Zebo, (neither of whom are normally heralded for making big defensive plays at this level), such was the marvellous commitment from everyone in green:
Ireland were in part helped by Australia butchering what looked like guaranteed scores, but they wouldn’t have squandered those opportunities if Irish defenders hadn’t rushed up to pressurise the pass. In those situations, it’s easy for the defending team to just give up and concede 5 or 7 points to give themselves a breather; Ireland refused to accept this, and demonstrated extraordinary perseverance by adapting to a nightmare scenario.
Australia have been faltering up front all year, but it’s been a long time since anyone (even the Springboks) dominated them in the tight phases to the extent that Ireland did.
The scrum was one-way traffic, except for the anomalous Australian pushover shortly before half-time. Sekope Kepu’s habit of extending his legs out almost fully put his front row under enormous pressure and Jérôme Garcès focused on him from an early stage. Tadhg Furlong had Scott Sio in his pocket and Cian Healy’s dominance over Allan Alaalatoa was vital in Ireland being awarded a match-winning penalty:
The selection of Dean Mumm in the back row didn’t do much to disrupt Ireland’s lineout (bar one steal early in the game), and the presence of Devin Toner at the front and Iain Henderson further down the line greatly affected Stephen Moore’s throwing. Ireland’s maul wasn’t as profitable in the second half, but the damage was done in the first, when they heaped misery on an already-maligned Australian pack:
It wasn’t only in the set-pieces that Ireland’s forwards had the upper hand. In some positions in the pack, Australia had an advantage over Ireland in terms of size (Rory Arnold and Rob Simmons are both taller than 6’7’’ and heavier than 18 stone and Sekope Kepu is enormous), yet Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony and Ultan Dillane bounced tacklers out of their way in the loose.
A big challenge for Simon Easterby heading into this fixture was planning for Michael Hooper and David Pocock both being in the starting XV, and the potential that had for denying Ireland sustained periods of possession and slowing down their ruck ball. Ireland actually managed to nullify both of Australia’s opensides in this area by blasting them away with low body positioning upon entry and eye-catching aggression whenever they were in a position to poach:
Ireland’s phase play attack developed against New Zealand and Canada, and there were further signs of progress with ball in hand against Australia. They have thrown more offloads this November than in previous series, and even though all of them haven’t come off, it’s a welcome addition to their armoury.
The use of a short pass out the back in midfield was designed specifically to expose the Australian centres’ defensive reads, and there was a lot of creativity involved in Iain Henderson’s try, but Ireland’s efficiency with ball in hand came down to a mix of quality distribution by Paddy Jackson, creative attacking shapes, variation of options, excellent passing and the use of footwork to step inside and outside defenders:
They created space in the Australian defence regularly, exploiting Henry Speight’s poor defensive play, and even with a reshuffled backline, they manufactured a try for Keith Earls in the final quarter via multi-phase attack. On top of executing well-constructed patterns to a high degree of accuracy, a number of Ireland’s players stood out with ball in hand.
Henderson didn’t carry as strongly as expected (which is understandable considering that he is making his return from a shoulder injury) and Jack McGrath’s, Jamie Heaslip’s and Conor Murray’s performance levels dropped a notch, but Ireland showed they have serious attacking threats in several positions.
With Seán O’Brien being ruled out, Australia had the chance to load their defence against CJ Stander, as he was certain to be used as Ireland’s primary ball carrier, but he still got beyond the gain line at will. Rory Best carried the ball efficiently, which was fitting for a player who has captained Ireland superbly in this series. He has long been an outstanding servant for club and country, and fully-deserving of an occasion like this to mark his 100th cap.
The sky is the limit for Tadhg Furlong, Josh van der Flier carried out the link man role to international standard, and Garry Ringrose is going to be a superstar. Simon Zebo has done enough to cement his place in Ireland’s starting XV (whether it be on the wing or at full back), with his skill and creativity matched by an ever-improving work rate for tackling and rucking.
Top Of The World
Ireland’s progress in this Autumn Series has been unthinkable: they broke their duck against New Zealand, brought 8 new players into the squad, moved into the top four of the world rankings, and most importantly, got results against big teams to back up strong performances. They have struggled with coming from behind to win under Joe Schmidt, and doing so against a superpower of world rugby represents an improvement in fitness levels and mental strength.
There’s plenty of room for improvement; their kicking out of hand following turnovers against Australia should have relieved the pressure they were under instead of adding to it, and they botched three lineouts in the Wallabies’ 22 (a source of frustration in the latter half of this series). They are also still reliant on Jared Payne for defensive organisation out wide, but all of these things are fixable, and won’t have gone unnoticed by the coaching ticket.
Scotland and Italy claimed big scalps, and France were a Beauden Barrett intercept try away from beating New Zealand. Wales putting South Africa to the sword and England beating Argentina with a red card for the majority of the game were impressive as well. Eddie Jones’ team look set to annihilate Australia this weekend, but on balance, Ireland had a tougher schedule and achieved greater things than any of their northern hemisphere counterparts in this series, which didn’t seem possible after such an average Six Nations.
The wins against New Zealand and Australia, along with this season’s resurgence of Leinster and Munster (not to mention Connacht making their mark in Europe), represent a significant turnaround from this time last year, when there was a dark cloud hanging over Irish rugby. Expectations will be high going into the Six Nations, and each of the other teams in that tournament have made progress too, but Schmidt’s Ireland seem to be building something special.