Simon Lewis, Melbourne
Ireland avenged an opening-Test defeat to beat the Wallabies on Australian soil for the first time since 1979 but head coach Joe Schmidt insisted there was nothing to celebrate with the series level heading to a decider in Sydney next Saturday.
The Irish put in a vastly improved performance to atone for their 18-9 defeat in Brisbane seven days earlier, reducing the impact of Wallabies flankers David Pocock and Michael Hooper at the breakdown having been dominated by the pair at Suncorp Stadium and recovering some aerial prowess a week on from a masterclass by Australian full-back Israel Folau.
Andrew Conway cancelled out a Kurtley Beale try in the opening 90 seconds with a score on seven minutes as Ireland profited from wing Marika Koroibete’s trip to the sin bin for a tip tackle on Rob Kearney and the recalled Johnny Sexton kicked three first-half penalties before the Australians hit back with a penalty try on 26 minutes that saw Cian Healy binned for collapsing a maul and certain try.
It left Ireland with a 16-14 lead at half-time but Man of the match Tadhg Furlong made the decisive breakthrough on 54 minutes with a try from short range converted by Sexton, who added a further penalty on 66 minutes to open up a 26-14 lead.
Another yellow, this time for Healy’s replacement Jack McGrath four minutes from time set up a nervy finish as Teneila Tupou powered over and Bernard Foley converted but Ireland hung on for a first victory here in 39 years..
The win helps Ireland hold on to second place behind New Zealand in the World Rugby rankings with Australia missing the opportunity to leapfrog them having failed to claim a 2-0 series lead and they now have a chance to further emulate the 1979 tourists by closing out the series in Sydney next weekend.
While the victory was loudly celebrated by a huge contingent of Irish fans in the AAMI Park crowd of 29,018, the Ireland boss did not feel it was the right time to call it a big moment for his team.
“Probably not right now because all we did was balance the series,” Schmidt said. “I think it all depends on what we can deliver next week and I know the Wallabies will be thinking the same thing. They’re a really good side and if they do get a bit more access I know as you saw toward the end we were chasing shadows.
“It feels like there’s still a huge amount to play for. So we’ll glue ourselves back together, get the trip out of the way to Sydney tomorrow and Monday, have a bit of a look back at the game and them Tuesday/Thursday get back out on the training pitch in North Sydney Oval and try to work our way through things.
“There’s still a few things that we know we need to do better because we know they’re going to keep getting better. I think it’s really evenly poised and I wouldn’t be keen on favouring either side just because the way the series has gone so far, both games have really been in the balance.”
Ireland could find themselves dealing with a disciplinary issue over Australian suggestions that their scrum half Will Genia was the victim of an off-the-ball incident with Cian Healy that left the Wallaby number nine requiring surgery on a fractured forearm.
The loosehead prop, who himself was forced off injured in the 46th minute, could be in further trouble with a possible citing. Though Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika said his camp would not be reporting the matter, the 27th-minute incident is almost certain to be addressed by citing commissioner Michael O’Leary from New Zealand.
“We ran the play down the front and Willy’s the decoy around the back and he got king hit (cheap shot) from the side – looked like a shoulder – and when you’re not expecting it, that’s what happens,” Cheika said.
“So Hoops (captain Michael Hooper) went down the front, Willy ran around the back – I’m not sure who it was from the other team that came in and hit him – and he jammed his arm and broke it.”
Schmidt meanwhile was looking forward to a series decider which he said took precedence over longer-term development plans for next year’s World Cup.
“We definitely want to win the series, but we've probably got 10 games now between this tour and when we go into our warm-up to the World Cup.
“So, the thing that we want to believe about our squad is that there's less and less between players and, so, selection is a contest every time. And as a result, we'll look back on what guys did well tonight and we'll see how guys travel.
“On Tuesday, we'll have a better idea about some of those guys who took knocks and that will allow us to make a few decisions further along.”
Aside from Healy (AC joint), Ireland lost try scorer Conway (hip pointer) soon after he scored his try and flanker Dan Leavy (sternum) at half-time, though none were considered serious issues, according to their head coach, who was satisfied with a much improved performance.
"I think we looked after our ball a lot better, there were probably half as many turnovers as we had last week, so that didn't allow them as much access to play off turnover ball, where we know they're so dangerous.
"The scrum was nice and solid and I felt we even got a little bit of pressure at times, and the ball retention was good.
"In that third quarter, we broke the line a couple of times really well but it was difficult to score in behind it. Nick Phipps' tackle on Keith Earls was an absolute try saver. It's a Nick Phipps special really, he works so hard in behind the line, he's a very good cover defender and he did a great job.
"The pop up to Rob Kearney, he didn't quite get over and there was probably a couple of penalties conceded down there subsequent to that that they probably put some pressure on themselves trying to get off the line and stop us scoring at that stage.
"Thankfully, Tadhg (Furlong) managed to get over in the end. I just thought that third quarter was probably defining for us and allowed us that buffer towards the end where we had Joey Carbery coming on to replace Devin Toner (cramp). I haven't seen that too many times, luckily we didn't have to throw him up in the lineout.
"We were just hanging in towards the end there, which you don't want to be against an Australian team with the athletes they have and the way they like to play with width. It was hard to stop their access, so it was another nip-and-tuck game.
"If people wanted a Test series, I think it's a genuine test every time. That's probably no surprise."
AUSTRALIA: I Folau; D Haylett-Petty, S Kerevi, K Beale (R Hodge, 64), M Koroibete; B Foley, W Genia (N Phipps, 27); S Sio (T Robertson, 71), B Paenga-Amosa (T Latu, h-t), S Kepu (T Tupou, 50); I Rodda (P Samu, 56), A Coleman (R Simmons, 42); D Pocock, M Hooper - captain, C Timu (L Tui, h-t).
Yellow card: M Koroibete 6-16 mins
IRELAND: R Kearney; A Conway (J Larmour, 14), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton (J Cooney, 79), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath, 46), N Scannell (R Herring, 48), T Furlong (A Porter, 71); James Ryan, D Toner (J Carbery, 76); P O’Mahony - captain (T Beirne, 64), D Leavy (J McGrath, 32-38; J Murphy, h-t), CJ Stander.
Yellow card: C Healy 27-37 mins; J McGrath 76 mins
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)