Joe Schmidt was left to rue “skinny” margins as his Ireland side experienced defeat for the first time in 15 months at Suncorp Stadium.
The Grand Slam winners’ 12-Test unbeaten run was brought to end in a high-intensity, immensely physical contest with the Wallabies in Brisbane as Michael Cheika’s side scored the opening salvo in this three-Test series by outscoring Ireland two tries to nil.
Bernard Foley in the first half and a killer blow by David Pocock with eight minutes left on the clock punished an Ireland side who enjoyed plenty of possession and territory but failed to breach a watertight Australian defence.
Munster-bound Joey Carbery, starting his first Test at fly-half against a tier-one nation, acquitted himself well in his 56 minutes on the field, kicking three penalties from four attempts and leaving the field with Ireland 9-8 up before handing over to first-choice Johnny Sexton but Peter O’Mahony’s side were unable to get separation from the home side with CJ Stander ruled to have been held up over the line early in the second half when the game was on a knife-edge.
Asked what the key differences were between the two sides, Ireland head coach Schmidt said: “Skinny enough ones. I thought they were incredibly physical. They persisted with a pretty effective tactic of cross-kicking and having Israel Folau going after them.
“He didn’t get them all but he got a few which allowed them to get in behind us and we were scrambling a little bit. We slipped off a few tackles, one early on Kurtley Beale where I thought Jacob Stockdale made an unbelievable tackle in the corner on (Marika) Koroibete. They worked pretty hard at the scrum and got it to turn pretty well. I thought our lineout got some really good pressure on them and that was a positive for us.
“Even we got in behind them a couple of times and probably over-kicked the ball – once from Conor (Murray) when it went touch in-goal and another from Jacob where it went off the side of his foot and straight into touch. We probably didn’t hold onto the ball as well as we would have liked. There was a lot of pressure at the ruck as well. Pocock obviously put a lot of pressure on and he always makes a big difference to a team. Apart from that, I don’t think there was too much between the teams."
In a game in which a helter-skelter first was described by Ireland skipper O’Mahony as “one of the quickest I’ve played in my career”, Wallabies head coach Cheika spoke of his pride at his team’s ability to match world number two-ranked Ireland for endeavour.
“We spoke earlier in the lead-up about work ethic,” Cheika said. “We think Ireland are probably where they are because they're such a hard-working team and if we were to compete, we need to have a work ethic that was at least the same, if not better, just to have a foothold in the game.
“It proved to be a bit of a slugfest, around one team going and then another team going. I was really proud of that effort on work ethic. We tried hard to reduce our penalties as well, we can be better on that but the effort was there. Maybe only one offside penalty and I just liked the character we showed.”
With Australia taking a one-nil lead in the best of three series, the pressure has piled onto Ireland ahead of what is now a make or break second Test in Melbourne next Saturday.
“We’ll just have to dust ourselves off,” Schmidt said. “It’s nothing that we didn’t expect. “They’re an unbelievably athletic and talented team. The last time they played here – as I said during the week – they beat the All Blacks. That’s the level and we’ve got to be able to compete at that level and get the margins to fall our way, albeit they were pretty skinny today. With 14 minutes left we led 9-8 but you’ve got to lead after 80 minutes.”
Schmidt praised inexperienced fly-half Carbery whom he felt had justified the faith he shown in a player making just his 11th Test appearance.
“I thought he was pretty solid really. He came off the field at 9-8, that’s not a bad return for a young man who’s really starting his first big tier-one Test match and he put a lot of work into his preparation during the week.
“He’ll be disappointed that he didn’t get that penalty because it was a reasonably comfortable angle and that could have just given us a little bit of a comfort zone and applied a little bit more pressure to the Wallabies. But I thought his tackle quality was good and his distribution was generally good. He put a few guys into a little bit of space. He missed a couple of passes due to that pressure of time and certainly they were giving us as little as possible. They were all over us at times and it did make it very hard to be able to spring too much together.”
“Having said that, there were some really good line breaks. Obviously CJ’s one, a couple on the edge with Keith Earls getting on the right wing, Rob Herring gets through and tries to offload to Robbie Henshaw and I think Robbie might have even got into a bit more space but lost control of the ball. Twice we knocked the ball on at the ruck. There was some real frustration with the hand on the ball but we’ve got to solve that. We’ve got to make sure that we are rock solid with that sort of thing.”
AUSTRALIA: I Folau; D Haylett-Petty (R Hodge, 62), S Kerevi, K Beale, M Koroibete; B Foley, W Genia (N Phipps, 73); S Sio (T Robertson, 63), B Paenga-Amosa (T Latu, 55), S Kepu (T Tupou, 55); I Rodda (R Simmons, 55), A Coleman; D Pocock (L Tui, 72), M Hooper - captain, CTimu (P Samu, 49-59 blood; 63).
IRELAND: R Kearney; K Earls (J Larmour, 25), R Henshaw, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Carbery (J Sexton, 56), C Murray (K Marmion, 76); J McGrath (C Healy, 48), R Herring (S Cronin, 56), John Ryan (T Furlong, 48); I Henderson (Q Roux, 65), James Ryan; P O’Mahony - captain (J Conan, 56), J Murphy, CJ Stander.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)