The phrase ‘go to the well’ is used to describe a team who have to dig deep to produce a brilliant, one-off performance to seal a famous win. It usually applies to a display that is out of the ordinary, and it has been thrown around a fair bit since Ireland beat Australia on Saturday to seal a series win. The problem with using that expression when talking about Ireland is that their efforts at the weekend weren’t an aberration. They have consistently drawn on their incredible character and mental strength to see themselves home in matches that they had no right to win, and you have to wonder if there are any limits to the courage that they possess.
Battle Of Wits
The early part of this match was an interesting game of chess whereby Australia struggled to unlock Ireland’s defence by putting the ball through the hands and kicked into the space that was created by the line speed they were facing. Robbie Henshaw learned from his mistakes from Brisbane and stayed connected with the rest of his defensive line, and Ireland rushed up into the faces of the Wallabies without sacrificing width, giving them very little room to manoeuvre:
Australia recognised this and counteracted it quite intelligently by kicking the ball in behind the point just beyond outside centre where Ireland’s blitz defence had left a gap:
Beauden Barrett did the same thing to Ireland when the All Blacks came to Dublin in November of 2016, and Andy Farrell needs to take cognisance of this. Ireland showed themselves to be highly flexible in how they adjusted their defensive system over the course of this series, but there is room for improvement with regards to their ability to think on the bounce.
They did well to concede 6 tries in 3 Tests to a side with Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau in their ranks, but they could do with reacting quicker and preparing themselves for scenarios like the above, because many teams resort to these types of kicks when they aren’t generating any forward momentum with ball in hand. Getting pinned back in your own 22 is not ideal for any side, especially one who relies on dominating territory the way Ireland do.
“That Guy’s Giving It Away For Free”
Once again, Ireland made life difficult for themselves by not putting Australia to the sword in the first half when they were there for the taking. With holes being punched in the Wallaby defence by Tadhg Furlong, Bundee Aki and CJ Stander, Ireland got themselves into good positions to drive their advantage home, but weren’t precise enough to get the five-pointers:
When you add Conor Murray’s attempted grounding against the base of the post, that’s six try-scoring opportunities that Ireland didn’t convert. They could have been over the horizon by half-time if they hadn’t been so profligate, and after this issue cropping up three games in a row, you would imagine that it will plague Joe Schmidt’s thoughts until Ireland take the field again.
David Pocock having a greater influence on the ground than he did in Melbourne was a factor in Ireland not turning pressure into points, but they can’t keep letting these chances go. They got away with it in this series but if it continues it will cost them down the road. A win over New Zealand in November is unlikely if they are wasteful, and it might end up being their undoing in Japan next year.
Pushing The Boundaries
The refereeing of some of the June internationals has drawn the ire of spectators, and the man in the middle and his team of officials were be a source of frustration on Saturday as well. Folau’s contacts in the air with Peter O’Mahony have led to him facing a disciplinary hearing, meaning that they warranted further sanction.
They weren’t the only offences that the controversial Waratah was guilty of; his slap down of Jordi Murphy’s pass gets worse with repeated viewing and even in real time, it looked worthy of a card:
Notwithstanding Folau’s indiscretions, the most obvious offences in this game came from Wallaby lock Adam Coleman. As a result of trying to play with an edge, his discipline in the first Test was poor, and he picked up from where he left off in that fixture by dropping his shoulder into the side of Keith Earls after the whistle had been blown in a ruck where the Irish winger was unable to protect himself due to his arms being trapped:
That kind of play is malicious and deserving of more than a penalty, but Coleman was allowed to stay on the pitch to cynically pull Ireland’s maul down twice in the lead-up to Stander’s try:
Neither of the above acts are any better than the maul collapse that Cian Healy was sin-binned for in Melbourne, but the fact that Coleman gave away three penalties in a row a couple of metres out from his own try line without being carded is bewildering. There is always an element of hometown refereeing in any game, but Ireland having to overcome the inconsistent officiating in this series makes what they have achieved all the more special.
The Swinging Pendulum
At the same time, the refereeing decisions didn’t all go against the visitors. They weathered the storm expertly when Australia enjoyed a purple patch that lasted from immediately after Stander’s try up until the 69th minute, but they were lucky in this game, too, and not just when it came to the judgement of the match officials. Rob Kearney’s offload to avoid giving Australia a lineout in the first half could easily have been intercepted, and although play was called back for Jacob Stockdale’s illegal fend on Nick Phipps, Kearney’s pass was risky:
Tadhg Beirne made a strong impact with his ball carrying, getting Ireland on the front foot in the fourth quarter, and John Ryan put an end to Ireland’s woes at scrum-time. Jordan Larmour was also impressive, using pace, footwork and aggression in contact to get Ireland in behind the Australian defence, and winning an aerial contest with Folau is something few can claim to have done.
The biggest break that Ireland got, though, was this pass from Joe Powell being adjudged to be forward:
That’s about as marginal a forward pass as you will see in professional rugby, and when you take into account the clock, the scoreboard and the position of the scrum, Ireland were extremely fortunate that Pascal Gaüzère picked up on it. They can have legitimate complaints about the aforementioned succession of penalties from Coleman, but this decision prevented them from having to stave off another gold onslaught, and it was a let-off that, in hindsight, was crucial in determining the outcome of this game.
The narrative in the build-up to this game was that winning the series took on more importance than developing squad depth because Ireland needed to prove to everyone (themselves included) that they are capable of winning a series of away from home against strong opposition. I didn’t agree that line of thinking until the days leading up to the third Test because I thought that Ireland were lacking depth at scrum-half, and that starting one of John Cooney or Kieran Marmion with the other on the bench would have done the world of good for Ireland in the long run.
The significance of winning this series only became apparent when I considered how big a statement it is to make to beat a nation like Australia on their turf. It’s the sort of thing that a group of players and coaches who are serious about challenging for a World Cup win had to do to in order to signal their intent. Schmidt has been criticised for not giving Ireland’s back-up scrum-halves or Ross Byrne game time in this series, but on Saturday, he had a decision to make: give Marmion more exposure to Test rugby and hand Byrne his debut, or win a series against a southern hemisphere powerhouse.
He opted for the latter, and circumstance dictated that Byrne couldn’t be brought on to the field in the final chapter of this series. If Ireland had made the most of their visits to the red zone in the first half, Byrne would likely have entered the fray, but they needed their talisman on the field to kick the penalty that ultimately won them the game (and that was after being on the receiving end of a monster hit from Samu Kerevi). Sexton was required to secure the win and it’s hard to picture Byrne slotting a tough place-kick of such magnitude on his first cap. The same goes for Kieran Marmion not being given the opportunity to show what he can do in this Test; Ireland couldn’t do without Conor Murray’s physicality for the frantic endgame.
The fixtures with Italy, Argentina and the US in November will provide openings for Ireland’s reserve scrum-halves, but securing a series win over the Wallabies is a major stepping stone. It’s not as if Schmidt selected his best XV for every match, either. Each of Rory Best’s back-ups would have gotten a start if Sean Cronin’s hamstring injury hadn’t ruled him out of the third Test (admittedly this may not have come to pass if Best had been fit for this tour), Tadhg Beirne received his first and second international caps, John Ryan and Jack Conan started against a team of the calibre of Australia and Joey Carbery got his first start against a Tier 1 country.
That’s a lot of game time to give to non-starters while trying to remain competitive, and even though 9 is still a position where Ireland are threadbare in terms of having several experienced players, Schmidt did nearly everything in his power to give Ireland options from 1 to 15. The confidence that can be taken from coming away from this series victorious invaluable, and it was timely that it happened 15 months out from a World Cup. Ireland’s form could fall off a cliff in the interim, but for the moment, they are heading in the right direction. They have been guilty of getting ahead of themselves when it comes to World Cup prospects in the past, but, injury permitting, a first-ever semi-final (and maybe more) now seems like a realistic goal.