DONAL LENIHAN: For Ireland's high achievers, eyes already turning towards NZ in November

“Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”

As the Irish players summoned up one last bit of energy to express their appreciation to the massive gathering of Irish supporters congregated behind the goal posts where they had defended so gallantly in the closing stages of an epic contest, the spoken words of that Van Morrison classic “Coney Island” came flooding into my head.

In a test series that delivered three breathtaking tests at the end of a season of heroic triumph, Ireland somehow found a way to withstand a second half Australian onslaught that would have buried most teams. Not this one as Ireland refused to be beaten.

Even then the outcome hung in the balance at full-time when referee Pascal Gauzere referred to his television match official Ben Sheen, for what seemed the umpteenth time, to check if Jacob Stockdale had deliberately knocked on what might have been a series-clinching final pass from Wallaby playmaker Bernard Foley.

With one camera angle proving conclusively that the Ulster man had made no contact with the ball Ireland, having reached into the very depths of their energy levels, had summoned one last defiant defensive stand to clinch a first series win in the southern hemisphere since 1979.

The Australian crowd were apoplectic as the Irish players sank to their knees. The Sydney sporting public came in their droves to witness the last ever rugby union international at the Allianz Stadium before it is demolished next year.

The Irish players will never be able to return to the scene of this great triumph long after retirement so they were absolutely right to come back out onto the field after the final whistle and share this historic moment with their families and the thousands of Irish fans that remained behind to savor a special moment.

The concept of the ’Grand Final’ is something Australian sports fan is well familiar with. Across all their high profile sports, be it Rugby League, Union or Australian Rules, they have them. The winner takes all mentality is crystal clear in the Australian psyche. Michael Cheika had been pressing that message home all week.

Well, the Wallabies had their version of a Grand Final last Saturday night and a chance to put the union code back in lights against the champions of northern hemisphere rugby. Winning the Lansdowne Cup may not register on most Irish sports fans list of priorities but, as a reward for winning a brutally physical series, the Waterford Glass trophy carried huge significance when contested for here in a three-test head-to-head.

The psychological return from this historic win will hopefully extend all the way to Tokyo in 15 months time. You get a chance to win a Grand Slam or a Six Nations championship every year. 

You might only be lucky enough to get a shot at a series win of this magnitude two or three times in your career. For a number of this squad, who fell at the final hurdle in South Africa two years ago, this achievement will be even more special.

What made Saturday’s defiant stand in the final 30 minutes of action even better was that Ireland, having dominated both territory and possession for five of the six halves of rugby played to that point, were now on the back foot and under severe pressure in the set piece which meant they were unable to get any foothold in the Wallaby half of the field.

For a team used to dominating and controlling the ball, being restricted to 35% possession and 27% territory against a Wallaby team that finally came to terms with what was required to stifle Ireland, somehow, the visitors still found a way to close out the game.

In those key moments, with their inspirational captain Peter O’Mahony already off the field after a series of aerial collisions with Israel Folau that the official handled disgracefully - World Rugby’s muddying of the waters following the sending off of Benjamin Fall against New Zealand being a major contributor here - others stood up to be counted, none more so than his co-captain Johnny Sexton and CJ Stander.

As I highlighted last week, some of the refereeing across all of the series being played out this month has been well short of the mark and is doing the game a disservice. Referees have become scared of making even the most clear and obvious calls without reference to the TMO and are ignoring clear offences happening right in front of their eyes. 

With just three minutes remaining and clinging onto a tenuous one-point lead, Ireland, having finally generated some momentum due in no small measure to some badly needed impact off the bench by Jordon Larmour, Tadhg Berne and John Ryan, won a penalty after a rare attack.

Sexton, who had no right to be on the field having been absolutely smashed in a thunderous tackle only minutes earlier by Samu Kerevi that must have done serious damage to his rib cage, stayed in the battle. It would have amounted to the ultimate baptism of fire for Ross Byrne but Sexton was going nowhere. He slotted over the penalty that meant Australia needed a try, with just two minutes left on the stadium clock, to clinch the series.

Unfortunately, Byrne will have to wait a little bit longer to win his first cap but everyone knew that this quality Wallaby back division was more than capable of producing one last piece of magic to score a five-pointer. In the end, they lacked the composure to deliver the final pass in the face of an extraordinary defensive stand from the Irish.

This triumph will resonate even more with Joe Schmidt and his squad as they had to go to a different place to survive. 

Despite all the positives derived from making multiple changes to the starting side throughout the campaign, from playing different combinations across all areas stretching from the front row to the back three, the biggest return stems from the character and sense of belief that has been forged over the course of the last month.

Experiencing the pressure furnace that accompanied the closing stages of the third test is something that simply cannot be replicated in any training camp. You have to live it. 31 players were exposed to game time, away from home, against an Australian side that will get better between now and the World Cup.

Cheika has unearthed a number of highly promising, young, front five forwards that will serve to feed an already potent back line. For Ireland to emerge triumphant down here, despite never fielding their strongest available side, is an incredible achievement.

Schmidt deserves massive kudos for his bravery in selection, choosing to do the hard thing - as he did with the team chosen for the opening test - rather than take the easy option. Ireland now have the depth he craves, even if the back up at scrum-half, in particular, remains a concern.

The superb Conor Murray started all three tests, underlining his importance to the team and more exposure for his designated replacement is something Schmidt will be keen to work on. 

Right now the players have a well-earned break and the chance to recharge the batteries after a dream season for Irish rugby that will be difficult to match at any stage in the future.

Even then it will be no surprise if Schmidt and his players allow their minds drift, on some foreign beach, to the meeting with New Zealand in Dublin next November. Ireland has never beaten the All Blacks on home soil. Another challenge, another piece of rugby history to be made on the road to their ultimate destination - Japan in 2019. 

I wouldn’t put it past them.



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