Joe Schmidt gambled with the matchday squad he chose for Saturday’s clash between Australia and Ireland, and in agonising fashion, the players he picked ultimately didn’t get the job done. The Ireland head coach made the right call by choosing several non-frontline players because 1) it allowed the ones who were involved in the Lions tour and the knockout stages of the Champions Cup and the Pro14 to recharge the batteries, and 2) it gave the reserve players exposure to one of the top teams in the world (one that they may have to play against if Ireland are to go far in RWC 2019 but suffer injuries along the way).
Schmidt did the same against Fiji in November, bit there were no complaints about it because Ireland scraped a win in that Test, and if the same had happened against Australia, there wouldn’t have been any eyebrows raised. He found out a lot about his non-starters, and the experience they gained is invaluable. If Ireland had won at the weekend, and then went on to be victorious in this series because their stars had been rested, his selections would have been hailed as genius, but as it stands, Ireland lost, and there is no shortage of work-ons to be taken from what transpired in Brisbane.
Nuts And Bolts
Ireland were outplayed at the breakdown on Saturday by some distance, and not having a classic scavenger at 7 hamstrung them in this regard. They did win turnovers on the floor under pressure, but as seen before, Jordi Murphy isn’t a natural groundhog, and this permitted David Pocock and Michael Hooper to do what they do best:
The other area where Ireland failed to deal with Australia was the aerial contests. This is a facet of the game that Irish wingers and full-backs are known for excelling at, but Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty ruled the skies at the weekend:
The Wallabies opting to target the Irish back three with bombs and getting a reward from it is one thing, but Ireland not reclaiming their own kicks was concerning, not to mention Rob Kearney’s two uncharacteristic blunders under the high ball.
Only conceding two tries to a team as dangerous as Australia would make you think that Ireland’s defence was solid, but that wasn’t the case. They scrambled well in the first half and defended the Wallabies’ trademark inside pass to the blindside winger move superbly, but they were narrow in their alignment from the outset, and passive in their line speed as the second half wore on.
The most glaring defensive misreads came from Robbie Henshaw, whose rushing off the line hindered his team instead of helping them. If he had gotten man and ball whenever he blitzed, he would have been applauded, but with two skillful playmakers at 10 and 12, Australia got the ball beyond him on a few occasions, hurting Ireland badly in the tramlines:
13 is the toughest position to play defensively, and once again, Henshaw demonstrated that he is better-suited to defending at 12, where there is less space to cover and less complexity to cope with. That’s not a slight on a talented, intelligent player, but as discussed before the game, Garry Ringrose is adept at sliding across when the opposition attempt to get the ball into the hands of their outside backs, whereas there is more scope for Henshaw to put his physicality to use further infield.
Outside of an unstable scrum platform, Ireland’s biggest problem in attack on Saturday was a lack of incision from their midfield partnership. This is the second time we have seen this from the Bundee Aki-Robbie Henshaw pairing (the first being against France back in February), and although it wasn’t a problem when the two started together against Italy in the Six Nations, that was largely due to Ireland working with quick ruck ball against a poor defence.
It didn’t draw any attention when they started together against South Africa in November because of the dominance Ireland enjoyed over the Springboks that day, but on Saturday, both players struggled to cut through the middle of Australia or put their wingers into space:
The exception was Keith Earls’ burst down the right touch line in the first half, but that was a result of a pre-planned first-phase strike move (the same one they used against Les Bleus in the Six Nations) being executed with accuracy, not something that came from creativity on the part of the players. Adam Coleman and co. were incredibly physical close-in, so Ireland got no change out of Australia up front for long periods, but more guile out wide was needed to unlock Nathan Grey’s defence.
In spite of their bluntness in attack, Ireland did create try-scoring chances (they had 9 line breaks to Australia’s 8), but didn’t take advantage of them. For a while now, this inability to convert visits to the red zone into points has plagued Ireland, and whenever they lose a game, it’s usually the main reason why. Saturday was no different, as Ireland repeatedly handed over possession deep in the Wallabies’ half by not looking after the ball properly:
These missed opportunities, along with Earls having a kick charged down after making a line break, CJ Stander not passing to Rob Herring with the try line at the hooker’s mercy, Conor Murray kicking out on the full after making a break off the back of a scrum and Johnny Sexton missing touch in the final quarter repeatedly let Australia off the hook throughout the game, and Ireland learned the hard way that you can’t do that against a great team and expect to win.
Fortunately for Ireland, many of their failings are fixable, and personnel changes are going to make a huge difference. The return of Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Tadhg Furlong to the starting pack and analysis from Greg Feek should mean that their scrum is improved in Melbourne. Dan Leavy is certain to be brought back in at 7, so Ireland won’t be relying on Peter O’Mahony to be their sole poacher on the floor.
Garry Ringrose, too, is likely to come back at outside centre, and this will help solve Ireland’s problems out wide in attack and defence. Joey Carbery has been the subject of harsh criticism, despite having a good outing. Aside from a missed place-kick and a wild pass in the last couple of minutes of the first half (where Ireland made mistake after mistake and a number of players were guilty of handling errors), the Munster-bound 10 was consistent in the quality of his passing, kicking and decision-making.
No, he didn’t have the influence on the game that Sexton normally has on matches, but that’s what sets Sexton apart, and that’s exactly why he is guaranteed to start the remaining Tests of this series. The solution to Ireland’s aerial woes isn’t as simple. There probably won’t be any alterations to the back three on either side (unless Earls’ head-knock rules him out of Saturday’s game), and it’s not as easy as Ireland’s coaches telling their players to just win the aerial battles next time.
There were plenty of positives for Schmidt and his coaching ticket to take from Saturday’s performance. Ireland now have the measure of the Wallabies, and with a half-strength pack, Sexton on the bench and two inside centres in midfield, they weren’t miles away from beating the strongest starting XV available to Cheika. Even though they didn’t profit from it as much as they would have liked, they disrupted Australia’s lineout expertly, and if they can recognise where they went wrong and make the necessary adjustments, this series could still be a winning one. It’s an uphill battle from here, but it’s doable.