DONAL LENIHAN: Another big step on Ireland's road to greatness?

After this momentous win, who knows what this Irish squad is capable of achieving.

I say ‘squad’ because if ever a victory was forged in the face of adversity, with several bench players asked to perform way outside their comfort zone, then this was it in Dublin on Saturday night.

This magnificent group of Irish players faced challenges no Irish team has had to endure yet negotiated a winning path against all the odds.

When the dust settles, the fact that they found themselves scrambling for victory will concern Joe Schmidt. His charges had dominated the opening half to such a degree that a 17-points lead after 35 minutes failed to reflect their level of dominance against one of the giants of world rugby.

It is well documented that a calamitous series of injuries derailed Ireland’s prospects of reaching a first World Cup semi-final just over a year ago. Even those injury travails paled into insignificance with the dilemma Ireland found themselves in from the outset of the second-half.

At least the team that succumbed to Argentina in Cardiff last October knew their fate in advance and had a week to adjust to the loss of some key personnel. Not so on this occasion. By the time Ireland re-emerged after the break, five of the first choice back line that defeated New Zealand in Chicago were gone.

Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw didn’t make it as far as the kick-off while Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne were in their tracksuits for the entire second-half. While Australia are not quite the force of the past, they were still ranked third in the world order coming into the game and have a backline capable of cutting you apart.

With three tries and 24 points run up in a scary 22 minute period either side of the break, during which the Wallabies also managed to butcher two more try scoring opportunities, what initially looked like a romp to victory for Ireland was turning into a harsh lesson for the hosts.

Schmidt is famed for an attention to detail that encompasses having to deal with potential, unexpected, consequences as they might unfold over the course of a game. Not in his worst nightmare would he have envisaged a scenario where Ireland would be forced to challenge Australia for an entire half with Connacht scrum-half Kieran Marmion on the wing, supported by a rookie out half, in only his 13th professional game of rugby, covering full back.

Not only that but Garry Ringrose would have to start the game, out of position at inside centre, and finish it alongside Keith Earls, who has consistently played his best rugby on the wing. Is it any wonder Ireland looked all over the place defensively during that horror spell when the Wallabies looked as if they could score at will.

However, that new found Wallaby confidence turned into arrogance and that proved their downfall. A few of their players, notably Israel Folau after a barren period of nine internationals since scoring his last try, got selfish and failed to release players in better positions to score.

Australia also got cocky after that mammoth points haul and attempted to run out of defence at a crucial period when they should have cleared their line. Simon Zebo, chastised by Schmidt in the past for not working hard enough off the ball, smashed Michael Hooper in a tackle yards from his own line. That offered the badly needed field position from which Ireland eventually delivered a magnificent team try from Earls. That score, coupled with a brilliant touchline conversion from Paddy Jackson, turned this amazing game Ireland’s way.

In the development of all great teams, there is always a key moment on the journey that comes to define the side. For Martin Johnson’s World Cup winning England, the only other team to beat South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in a calendar year, which they achieved twice in a row in 2002 and 2003, their defining moment came when defending a five metre scrum against New Zealand in Wellington in 2003.

With only six forwards on board when Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio both found themselves in the sin bin at the same time, they somehow managed to keep their line intact and went on to win the game. After that they knew they could win a World Cup, even in Australia.

For me that try from Earls, which propelled Ireland to a victory against the odds given the circumstances the team were in, could yet become this squad’s defining moment. At that point in the game, only six of the team that started against New Zealand in Chicago were on the field, yet the collective responsibility to achieve something special was grasped by those men.

There were a number of outstanding performers over the course of a remarkable 80 minutes. For me, Garry Ringrose was sensational for a number of reasons. This was only his second start in international rugby, his third cap in all. The fact that two of those have been, out of position, against New Zealand and Australia would have fazed a lesser being. Factor in also that Stuart Olding had been occupying the No 12 jersey in training all week at Carton House and was set to start this game in that role until he tweaked his hamstring in the last phase of preparation on Thursday.

One of the key functions of the inside centre is to get over the gain line of set piece plays. Most modern No 12 use their bulk to achieve that but Ringrose is no basher. He uses subtlety over physicality to achieve that goal time and time.

This guy has it all and is also teak tough. His workrate and tackle technique was outstanding and those dancing feet also yielded his first try at this level. Mark my words, there will be plenty more of those to follow from him over the years to come.

On the collective front Ireland’s front five were, once again, outstanding both in terms of set-piece efficiency and work rate in the tackle and at the breakdown. That enabled the indefatigable back row trio of Jamie Heaslip, CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier, supplemented by a thunderous final quarter from Peter O’Mahony off the bench, to play their quality Wallaby counterparts off the park.

Some achievement.

This must go down as one of the truly great Irish victories, forged in the image of the team’s inspirational captain Rory Best. What a way to mark a century of international caps.

There was a time in Irish rugby history when beating Wales, England and Scotland in a campaign set you apart. Defeating South Africa, New Zealand and Australia over the last five months does much more than that — a Triple Crown with a difference.

How ironic then that our biggest challenge yet this season may still lie ahead with reigning Six Nations champions England still unbeaten under Eddie Jones after his12 games in charge. They are due in Dublin next March.

Another Aviva occasion not to be missed.


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