This delicately poised Test series in Australia represents the best possible preparation Ireland could have hoped for a year out from the World Cup, writes Donal Lenihan.
In the eight global tournaments staged to date, Ireland, with some really good squads, have failed to crack what is required to make it past the quarter-finals.
As the only northern hemisphere side to lift the Webb Ellis trophy, England, in the seasons preceding the 2003 event, showed that one of the prerequisites is to establish a winning culture against the big three in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia not only at home but, of even more importance, on the road.
To win a World Cup, you have to be absolutely convinced that you have what it takes to not only compete on equal terms with SANZAR’s best, but to beat them. Over the last two years, this Irish squad have now experienced that rare feeling of winning against the Springboks in Cape Town and Australia in Melbourne. That, coupled with a first ever defeat of New Zealand, in Chicago, marks this group of players as different to any of their predecessors.
New Zealand remain the standard bearers but, as Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, and Johnny Sexton discovered first hand last season, along with a handful of other Irish players in the Lions squad that shared in the victory in the second Test in Wellington, the All Blacks are not quite the unbeatable force many see them as.
Despite having their current series against France tied up before the final Test in Dunedin this weekend, they have impressed without being frightening in any way. In both games, the French came out on the wrong end of controversial refereeing decisions, notably the yellow card issued by Luke Pearce to second row Paul Gabrillagues in the first Test.
In the second Test, it appeared Australian referee Angus Gardner had no choice but to send Benjamin Fall off for his clumsy aerial collision with Beauden Barrett. World Rugby has since created even more confusion on the way such aerial collisions should be interpreted by stating that Fall should not have been sent off as he had his eyes fixed on the ball. That has not always been the case in these incidents, with a duty of care seen as more important, hence the confusion.
The French normally throw in the towel away from home when they have been offered an excuse — being reduced to 14 men after only 12 minutes in Wellington gave them the perfect out.
Yet they showed real character in exposing shortcomings in the New Zealand game, losing by only 13 points after having a try disallowed in dubious circumstances.
With Ireland meeting New Zealand in Dublin next November, Joe Schmidt will already have earmarked that game for closer scrutiny on his return home.
He will also have noted the extraordinary result in Houston last Saturday night where Ireland’s main World Cup pool rivals, Scotland, lost to the USA by a point.
Scotland always appear to go on these “soft” tours — they beat Canada 48-10 last week — that do absolutely nothing to bring their squad on.
Even next week’s final tour hit out against Argentina appears less challenging than anything Ireland, England — struggling badly in South Africa — and France have to face.
Wales have already wrapped up a creditable series win over the Pumas with a squad stripped of practically all their touring Lions, so Scotland badly need to front up next
weekend in order to salvage anything out of their summer travels.
Here in Australia, I was surprised at how a victory for the Wallabies over Ireland in Brisbane was interpreted as a very positive chink of light for the future of Australian rugby. Given that we hadn’t beaten them over here, despite having 12 attempts at it since 1979, didn’t matter one iota. How times have changed.
In keeping with the dodgy refereeing calls in New Zealand, Schmidt had every right to feel less than impressed by some of the officiating of Marius van der Westhuisen and Paul Williams in the two Tests to date. World Rugby appear to be fast-tracking a whole host of young, inexperienced referees, with, I presume, next year’s World Cup in mind.
Schmidt was right to be fuming with the call by Williams not to allow Ireland finish the opening half on a scrum after a Wallaby knock-on committed before the
half-time hooter. For some strange reason, Williams also declined to play advantage after infringements committed by both sides, despite both being in good attacking positions. Schmidt must also be wondering how Australia avoided a yellow card after being found guilty of several deliberate knock-ons.
Dealing properly with this issue is not confined to inexperienced officials. Wayne Barnes was guilty of the same in the Champions Cup final when Racing 92’s Leone Nakawara slapped forward the ball so blatantly on a Leinster attack that he was virtually heading to the sin bin before the referee even approached.
What followed was even more bizarre when Barnes awarded only a penalty having watched a video replay of the incident. In his opinion, Racing had sufficient defenders in place to cope with Leinster’s attack. So Barnes is now clairvoyant and knows in advance when defenders are going to make their tackles.
At least Schmidt might sleep a little easier in advance of Saturday night’s deciding Test with the experienced French referee Pascal Gauzere in charge. Having won that opening Test against South Africa at Newlands two seasons ago, the failure to capitalise on it and secure a historic series win against a vulnerable Springbok side still irks Schmidt.
That was an opportunity lost and he will be keen not to blow a similar chance here. The tour has already delivered a number of positives, not least in exposing comparative rookies James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Joey Carbery, Andrew Porter, and Jacob Stockdale to the demands of playing against a top class side away from home.
He has introduced Tadhg Beirne to the international arena, where his versatility off the bench could become a key asset in a tournament like the World Cup. To have exposed 31 of the 32 players in the touring party to game time — Ross Byrne is the odd one out — is no mean feat against opposition of this quality.
Given the age and recent injury profile of captain Rory Best, Schmidt will also be pleased to have got a really good look at two less experienced hookers in Rob Herring and Niall Scannell.
While his regular back-up Sean Cronin has reason to be disappointed, by starting Herring and Scannell, he is now in a better position to rank the options open to him in such a key position if anything happens to Best.
Both hookers grabbed their chance spectacularly and Cronin, after a super season with Leinster, will now feel under pressure to make the World Cup squad. It will be interesting to see if Schmidt offers Cronin a shot at redemption in Sydney after he appeared to shoulder the blame for the decisive scrum penalty in the 69th minute of the first Test that swung the contest in Australia’s favour.
This squad of high achievers now stand 80 minutes away from creating yet another piece of history in a season that has already yielded so much for so many in the group.
In times past, a number of Irish touring parties reached this point with nothing more to look forward to than their summer holidays. With one more valued prize at stake, Saturday night in Sydney offers something far more rewarding.
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