“We felt the lightning,
And we waited on the thunder,
Waited on the thunder,
I awoke last night to the sound of thunder,
How far off I sat and wondered”
–Bob Seger – Night Moves (1976)
When Ireland lost to Australia in Brisbane, they looked a pale imitation of the team that dominated the Six Nations only three months ago. While a lot of that had to do with Joe Schmidt selecting several non-starters, there were noticeable dips in Ireland’s aggression and accuracy levels compared to what they showed back in spring. On Saturday, though, they rediscovered the thunder and produced a performance that was right up there with their finest displays this season, and despite a nervy endgame, they were deserved winners in a match where the hosts were competitive to the death.
Tadhg Furlong and Rob Kearney were the two Irish players who made the biggest strides between the two Tests, and they epitomised Ireland’s return to form. Furlong was powerful and athletic in the loose and technically superior in the scrum, and Kearney was rock-solid under the high ball and efficient and skillful on the counter-attack. Both players had many detractors after Australia defeated Ireland in Suncorp Stadium, but they demonstrated their true class on Saturday.
A significant factor in Ireland’s loss in the first Test of this series was their inability to cross the whitewash against an Australian defence that was organised, hard-hitting and intelligent. This time round, they experienced no such issues for a number of reasons, and chief among them was the manner in which they limited Australia’s influence at the breakdown.
Their tormentor from the previous week, David Pocock, was treated with a level of disdain at the breakdown that bordered on grievous bodily harm, and even though the speed and accuracy of Ireland’s clear-outs were improved in general, the Australian no. 6 was the subject of a special kind of attention by the Irish pack:
This, coupled with Ireland’s forwards using a mix of clever footwork and tooth-rattling physicality to win the majority of the game’s collision’s and a stable scrum, gave their back line front foot ball to run on to, and Australia were at sixes and sevens defensively on more than one occasion, with the poor tackle technique and defensive reading of Kurtley Beale being ruthlessly exploited:
Garry Ringrose being brought back into Ireland’s starting XV at outside centre, along with Robbie Henshaw moving to 12, meant that the latter’s physicality and the former’s distribution combined for a potent mix in midfield:
On top of their stellar work with ball in hand, Ireland’s tactical kicking was smarter, with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton opting for cross-field kicks instead of lengthy box-kicks or garryowens, and the net result of this was that Marika Koroibete, Dane Haylett-Petty and Israel Folau were markedly less assured under the high ball:
The kick in the second example above was obviously miscued by Sexton, but it still put doubt in the minds of the Australia back three, and the supremacy they had in the air the week before became a distant memory.
Notwithstanding the three tries that they let in, Ireland’s defence was a different beast to the narrow, passive effort we saw from them in the first game of this series. Their alignment was altered to account for Australia’s width in attack, and they repeatedly spread out and shut down the space, forcing the ball carrier to run laterally when the Wallabies moved the ball wide:
The intensity in the tackle and speed off the mark of the Irish forwards denied the Australian pack momentum for large periods, and Andy Farrell proved how valuable he is to Ireland by drilling them into a cohesive unit defensively during the week.
What Ireland did on both sides of the ball put Australia under intense pressure from straight after Beale’s try until the final ten minutes of the game when they attempted a dramatic comeback, and there were numerous uncharacteristic mistakes from players who were brimming with confidence in Brisbane: David Pocock’s brainless offside penalty, Beale’s knock-on in his own 22, Folau being made a fool of by a bouncing ball and Koroibete knocking on a below par pass from Tom Robertson were hallmarks of a side who were struggling to cope with what their opponents were doing to them.
That’s not to say that Ireland found Australia easy to contain; the Wallabies are always going to be dangerous regardless of how much possession and territory they get, or the quality of the opposition defence, and Ireland were stretched more than once over the course of this game. However, they were rescued from these situations by the superb jackalling of Peter O’Mahony on the floor. The Munster flanker has thrived in this series since being given the captain’s armband, and similar to the first Test, he won penalties on the ground when his team were on the back foot and appeared to be close to conceding a try:
Being handed the captaincy has gotten the best out of O’Mahony and giving it him on a permanent basis might be the wisest move that Ireland’s post-RWC 2019 head coach makes. You could argue that it’s too soon to make an assertion like that on the back of just two games, but he has all the traits of a viable long-term leader for his country.
No Stone Unturned
Ireland did brilliantly to salvage this series on Saturday, but they were far from perfect. Beale’s early try could have derailed them completely, and there were a handful of cheap penalties that were conceded which undid some positive play. Schmidt will know better than anyone that this contributed to the game being closer than it should have been, and exactly the same as after the last fixture, Ireland’s errors will be analysed in painstaking detail in the Monday morning video review.
As Michael Lynagh pointed out on Sky, Ireland should have run away with this game with the amount of possession, territory and line breaks that they had. The visitors were incredibly clinical with their try-scoring opportunities in the first half, but that precision deserted them in the second 40, and every chance will have to be taken this Saturday if Ireland are to win. They won’t survive two sin-binnings again either, and if the maul penalties continue, they could end up costing them the series. The emotional response from Michael Cheika’s side in Sydney will be massive, and if Ireland aren’t prepared for it, the form they have generated with this win won’t get them over the line.