Ireland’s punishing clash with Australia last night has drawn criticism from all quarters for it’s perceived low entertainment quotient, and while it was certainly a low-scoring game for two sides that aren’t normally short on tries, it was still a gripping Test match of the highest intensity. The injuries sustained by both teams during it shows that it wasn’t for the faint of heart, and games like that do infinitely more in terms of character-building than walkovers or end-to-end affairs.
Ireland were scrappy and error-strewn, but being without their chief playmaker and his back-up meant that a masterclass from 10 wasn’t going to be their route to victory. Their mistakes weren’t exactly unforced, either; Australia made everything that they tried to do with ball in hand an ordeal (and crossed the line in doing so at times), but Ireland battled just as ferociously as their visitors, and although home advantage is significant at international level, they came out on the right side of the scoreboard.
Australia turned up to the Aviva Stadium last night in desperate need of a win, and it was evident in the constant niggle from them during the game. Numerous off the ball incidents and two neck roll penalties tell a story in and of itself (and there would probably have been more if Folau Fainga’a hadn’t received a yellow card for the second one), but even within the laws of the game, Australia turned every breakdown into a dogfight:
This is a large part of the reason why Ireland’s attack never got motoring completely in the first half of the game, but compared to the second half, they had less territory and possession in the opening 40 minutes, and much of that was their own doing.
There was some uncharacteristic poor kicking out of hand from Ireland in this game, and on more than one occasion, they put in long, low punts that went straight into the hands of an Australian player, and Dave Rennie’s side were happy to run the ball back for big gains:
Ireland’s last-ditch tackling and desire not to let Australia score tries easily was borderline superhuman in this fixture, but they could have made life easier for themselves by being more accurate when putting boot to ball, especially when you consider that Australia have long been one of the most potent counter-attacking sides in Test rugby, second probably only to the All Blacks in that department.
The same could be said for their breakdown work, which, after being of such a high standard against South Africa two weeks ago, deteriorated badly in their subsequent games. The myriad of changes could excuse their faults in this area against Fiji, but the team they fielded against Australia was the strongest one available to them, and the unit combinations were more than familiar with one another, so there was no reason why they should have been pinged on the floor so many times:
As mentioned above, Australia were extremely aggressive on the deck, but Ireland’s attacking system is predicated on quick, clean possession, and they were already taught the importance of efficient clearing out this year in their loss to France.
Patience Is A Virtue
Ireland really grew into this game as the second half progressed, and their attack became more fluent throughout the third quarter in the build-up to Bundee Aki’s try as they brought a lot more energy after half-time, and put more trust in Jack Crowley to pull the strings, but even before that, they displayed admirable composure with their multi-phase attacks in the face of immense pressure from Australia.
Near the end of the first half, they used a maul, then a pop pass from Stuart McCloskey to a support runner off his shoulder (a pattern that we saw against Fiji) to generate go-forward ball, before using the momentum to stretch Australia wide:
The second half saw them turn to more intricate attacking with layers of pod structures, and even though he didn’t dominate the game through searing line breaks, Jack Crowley showed maturity beyond his years to calmly thread the ball along in each phase as Ireland were rolling through their playbook:
On the other side of the ball, Ireland had to withstand several onslaughts from the Wallabies in the second quarter, and despite their discipline being unusually poor across the 80 minutes, they did hold out for extended periods when the kitchen sink was being thrown at them, forcing Australia into handling errors and kicking away of possession:
The same applies to their defensive lineout, where in spite of conceding penalties for being too eager to disrupt Australia’s throws, Ireland also stayed patient a number of times, reading the Australian throw expertly, and then disrupting it via legal means, and it has been noticeable how influential James Ryan has become in this phase of play recently:
When The Smoke Clears
A November clean sweep for Ireland the year before a World Cup means that the ‘peaking too early’ subject has reared its ugly head again. Maybe there’s good reason for that, and while Ireland could well capitulate in France next September, the optimist in me would like to think that they won’t. 33 of the 49 players selected by Andy Farrell for this November campaign have never played at a World Cup before, and the hope would be that they will bring exuberance of youth.
The more seasoned players in the squad do have some baggage, but if they can channel their bad experiences in the right way, and use their harsh lessons to remind themselves to remain calm and assured of their ability and focus on the skills and tasks that need to be executed and completed in a given match rather than build a tournament or a quarter-final up to be this huge challenge that they have never overcome, harness the energy of the younger squad members and get some luck when it comes to injuries/refereeing, then there’s no reason why they can’t go far at RWC 2023.
Questions have also been raised about whether 10 is an area of concern for Ireland, but truth be told, they have been have had dreadful luck in the position for a good while now. Joey Carbery has struggled to string consecutive appearances at club level together for a couple of years, the Irish management haven’t had as good a look at Harry Byrne or Ciarán Frawley as they would have liked due to their injury troubles this season and last, and Jack Carty, Billy Burns and Ross Byrne (prior to last night) appear to be out of Andy Farrell’s plans.
Johnny Sexton has missed chunks of each series of games that Ireland have played in 2022, and you would wonder if his body will hold out for another year, but that’s out of his (or anyone else’s) control, so there’s a strong element of hope involved. Jack Crowley is now another viable option in the 10 jersey and Joey Carbery is more than capable of ensuring that Ireland are competitive against the better teams (as we saw against Argentina last year and France this year), so on top of being undefeated in this Test series, Andy Farrell may have just solved one of the biggest problems in his squad, as well as developing depth in several other positions.