DONAL LENIHAN: Failure to cope with Wallaby wonders costs Ireland dear

This group of Irish players has made a habit of rewriting history over the course of the last few seasons, whether it has been beating New Zealand for the first time or recording a rare Grand Slam as they did in Twickenham back in March.

If they wish to continue in that vein by winning a test series down under for the first time since 1979, they will now have to do it the hard way. The second test in Melbourne next Saturday becomes a must-win game for Ireland if they want to keep this series alive into the final week in Sydney.

That will prove challenging, given the momentum the Wallabies have generated from Saturday’s impressive opening win, but it’s by no means beyond the capacity of this Irish team. 

I expect they will come back stronger, will tweak things in selection, and will be more aware of the specific qualities this Wallaby team brings to the table.

Michael Cheika’s men can take a huge amount of positives from Saturday’s performance but Joe Schmidt will have to look at how Australia succeeded in stopping Ireland from building any semblance of momentum. 

Throughout the season Ireland have profited massively from launching their big ball carriers over the gain line, enabling them to generate quick ball and dictate matters.

Australia never allowed that to happen due in no small measure to the excellence of their work at the breakdown, allied to the stifling line speed they managed to generate in defence. 

On too many occasions, especially in the opening quarter, Ireland set up the receiver with the pass which resulted in a series of massive hits.

Not only did that energise the Wallaby effort from the off but it got the fickle Australian public behind their side. Conor Murray and Joey Carbery were on the receiving end of a number of those perfectly timed hits and Ireland were rattled.

Schmidt took the hard decision to start Carbery in this Test and he will be better for the experience. He now appreciates that the time and space available when coming off the bench to close out a game in the final quarter just doesn’t exist from the outset.

That said, he acquitted himself well in difficult circumstances, made good decisions in traffic when taking the ball flat, and succeeded in putting runners into the hole. 

He retained his composure, despite being on the receiving end of some punishing hits, and came back stronger every time.

The thing that will disappoint him most will be the miss from a reasonably straightforward penalty just after the break that would have put Ireland into the lead. That, coupled with CJ Stander’s failure to ground the ball over the line to the satisfaction of the television match official after an outstanding break, ultimately proved crucial to the outcome of this bruising battle.

The fact that Australia succeeded in slowing down Ireland’s ability to recycle quickly made Carbery’s job a lot more difficult but he will have gained a lot from starting this one.

Johnny Sexton will be back in the lead role next weekend but unless Ireland deal with the pressure exerted by the Wallabies at the breakdown better than they managed last Saturday, the same issues will recur.

The returning David Pocock, after almost two years out of the international game for a variety of reasons, was as influential as ever and his work in the tackle and on the floor, in tandem with Wallaby captain Michael Hooper, created havoc. Ireland knew in advance what this pair were capable of delivering but failed to cope.

There was serious pressure on the Wallabies coming into this game and they played with a physical intensity not seen for some time. On the basis of this performance, you have to wonder how they conceded 53 points to Scotland last November with many of the same matchday squad on board.

Defensively, both individually and from a collective perspective, they were a different team. They also coped effortlessly with Ireland’s kicking, winning the battle in the air hands down.

Ironically, their kicking game inflicted far more damage in the back field with Rob Kearney, after a promising start, losing his composure at vital times.

The success they achieved by slowing Ireland’s ball enabled the Wallaby midfield exert huge pressure on Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw which forced them into contact, back to the preying arms of the rampaging Pocock and Hooper.

As always, Ireland were hugely inventive off the set-piece with some cleverly executed powerplays managing to break down the ravenous Wallaby defence. Ireland went close to scoring a crucial try on a few occasions off those but failed to finish from promising situations.

From broken play, Australia asked far more questions with two inventive first receivers and playmakers in Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale wreaking havoc with the quality of their passing.

On a number of occasions, Ireland gambled by employing shooters in defence. When you do that, you have to make the tackle. Henshaw, who looked rusty after his recent injury, missed two such efforts and was fortunate that Jacob Stockdale bailed him out with an outstanding piece of corner-flagging which saved a certain try from Marika Koroibete.

One also has to question the logic of kicking to Israel Folau which Ireland did with damaging regularity in the opening quarter of the game. 

Right from the kick-off, Ireland made the conscious decision to land the ball on the mercurial full back with the intention of giving Kearney the opportunity to inflict a psychological blow for the visitors by beating their go-to man in the air.

 That manoeuvre simply didn’t work, yet Ireland repeated the tactic from the restart that followed Foley’s opening penalty after only two minutes. Again Folau won that contest cleanly and all around him grew in stature.

He oozed class with the fielding of a crossfield kick from Beale in the build-up to Pocock’s crucial second-half try — a thing of beauty. Ireland offered him the opportunity to express himself right from the kick-off and he took it, literally, with both hands. He is a serious athlete.

Of the other changes to the regular starting team, John Ryan scrummaged and carried well while Rob Herring excelled at the set-piece and in cleaning up on the deck. What disappointed was that the expected impact off the bench from Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy never materialised. Indeed Furlong is beginning to show the signs of wear and tear after an incredible season.

There is a reason why 39 years have passed since Ireland last beat the Wallabies in Australia.

They are always fiercely competitive and Ireland represented a prized scalp to launch their new international season.

Saturday’s contest marked the 11th attempt at defeating them on home soil since that historic test series win in 1979. At least Ireland get another chance to turn that frustrating losing sequence on its head in five days’ time.


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