The high levels of optimism among Irish supporters for a series win in Australia this month aren’t necessarily naive; Ireland are an excellent side that have just won a Grand Slam, but people seem to be forgetting how good Australia can be, not to mention the fact that Ireland only beat the Wallabies by the skin of their teeth in their last two meetings, and both of those games were on Irish soil.
That’s not to take away from what Ireland have achieved this year. A Six Nations clean sweep is a remarkable feat of consistency, but Australia are a different calibre of opposition to anything Ireland faced in that tournament, and will be playing on their home patch. Michael Cheika’s team lost heavily to England and Scotland in their last two games, but I think the performance levels they reach in this series will be closer to the ones that we saw from them against Wales back in November, when they tore Shaun Edwards’ defence asunder in the Principality Stadium for 60-odd minutes.
Australia also have the advantage of coming into this series fresher than their visitors, with Ireland being at the end of a long season with several of their players being involved in last year’s Lions tour. There are parts of Ireland’s game that need addressing if they are to be competitive, but end-of-season fatigue will be their biggest obstacle in this series.
Tweaking The System
Andy Farrell’s defensive system is characterised by players aligned in a narrow formation. When the ball is moved wide, the idea is that the defenders push from in to out if the hard press in midfield doesn’t force a handling error. This pattern makes it difficult to break up through the middle of Ireland or pass to the edge accurately, but it does leave them vulnerable to getting outflanked if the attacking team can get the ball out wide quickly and cleanly.
This was a problem for them against Italy and Wales, with each of those sides causing Ireland trouble in the tramlines:
As examined previously, Garry Ringrose’s introduction to the starting XV towards the end of the Six Nations gave Ireland more freedom to drift across in defence, but there remained a sizeable gap between the last man and the touch line that their opponents exploited with quick hands:
With a superior scrum and maul, Ireland have enough weapons in their attacking armoury to score plenty of tries, but it’s the quality of their defence that will determine the outcome of this series.
For these games, they would be better off adjusting their usual system by having their players spread out a little wider, even if it stretches them thinner in midfield. This shouldn’t be an issue because Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw have the physicality to match Samu Kerevi, and although spacing defenders out further from one another does leave Ireland open to the possibility of Australia eking out yards around the ruck, they aren’t as susceptible to pick and go’s and close-in carries with the back row Cheika has selected.
That’s not a slight on the carrying abilities of David Pocock or Michael Hooper; the former has the ideal body shape for fighting through contact for extra yards and the latter is effective in open spaces, but neither of them are wrecking ball, Jerome Kaino-type flankers, and Caleb Timu is an unknown quantity at international level.
For all the hype around their size, Adam Coleman has never really done much damage to Ireland in-close in the past, and as dynamic a carrier as Sekope Kepu is, the Irish forwards have the power and the tackling technique to cope with him. What Ireland should be more concerned with is the threat of the Australian back line:
The Bernard Foley/Kurtley Beale combination is as creative an attacking axis as you will see in Test rugby and Israel Folau is as influential as ever. Every defensive system leaves space somewhere, but bringing an Australian forward to the floor is easier than scrambling desperately to try and lasso Dane Haylett-Petty or Marika Koroibete when they are in full flight. Australia’s style of attack has traditionally been to move the ball wide early and often, and the current Wallabies side is no exception.
Loose Kicks Sink Ships
Besides narrowness in defence, Ireland’s main shortcoming in the spring was kicking too long. It never lost them a game, but it did cause them to concede three tries each against Italy and Wales, which could have ended up costing them the Championship if they hadn’t won all of their matches. Below, we see Joey Carbery putting in a downtown kick that Matteo Minozzi runs back to create a try for Edoardo Gori:
Minozzi was a surprise package in this year’s Six Nations; dangerous on the counter-attack in a team that normally make do with catch-and-kick full-backs. So too was his backfield colleague Mattia Bellini, but they aren’t in the same league as Folau and co. Here, we see the Australian back three putting Wales and England under scrutiny last November on kick returns:
Folau didn’t play in the November Series, and the Welsh defence still couldn’t get a handle on Australia. England recorded an impressive win over the Wallabies in that series, but up until the fourth quarter, the result hung in the balance. It is imperative therefore that Ireland’s loose kicking is corrected immediately because their last two victories over Australia followed the same pattern whereby they had a blistering start, storming into a two-try lead, only to lose control of the game and let the men in gold run riot, before hanging on by their fingernails for a win.
An unstructured, high-tempo match is fitting for the players Australia have at their disposal, and Ireland allowing them to dictate the flow of the game in the November 2016 clash can be partly attributed to Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney all succumbing to injury before the second half started. If the same thing happens again for any reason, though, Ireland are unlikely to win a single Test (nevermind the series) over the next few weeks.
These June Tests are going to push the aerobic fitness of Ireland’s players to its absolute limits. Playing an Australian side who will gladly throw the ball around on their turf in what will probably be good weather conditions is not an enticing prospect for a squad who had eight players involved with the Lions last summer. As discussed earlier, expansive rugby plays to Australia’s strengths and exposes Ireland’s weaknesses at the same time, and if Ireland’s pack have to cover a lot of ground from the get-go on Saturday, it will show in the final 20.
Out of Ireland’s Lions contingent, Jack McGrath and CJ Stander look to be the worst cases of burnout, and there’s a valid argument that they should have been left at home in favour of players who haven’t got the same amount of miles on the clock. Dave Kilcoyne would have added a boost of energy to proceedings, and if Jack O’Donoghue wasn’t injured, his pace would have been perfect for the firm pitches of Australia.
Even without O’Donoghue, Ireland had the choice of resting Stander, with Jordi Murphy being able to cover number eight. It would have made bringing someone like Max Deegan along in an apprenticeship role an option to further strengthen the depth of the squad, while giving one of Ireland’s crucial players the summer off to charge the batteries ahead of next season.
That’s not a dig at Joe Schmidt, either; the Ireland head coach has been laudable in his efforts to give caps to younger players and expand his squad since the last World Cup, and he has done the right thing by not starting Tadhg Furlong or Johnny Sexton (even if those selection calls are huge gambles). However, time will tell if Ireland’s regular starters have the legs for this series.