Well, at least Ireland’s new management team has a very clear picture of the enormity of the task facing them in their new roles.
The fact that New Zealand arrive next Sunday with the carrot of becoming the first team in the professional era to go unbeaten in a calendar year doesn’t make that challenge any easier.
The most disappointing aspect of Saturday’s 15-32 defeat to Ewen McKenzie’s Australia wasn’t so much the technical deficiencies at the set-piece or the repetition of the aimless kicking witnessed against Samoa, bad enough as they were. It was the sheer lack of urgency and aggression in the contact area coupled with the passive nature of Ireland’s defensive effort.
Australia couldn’t believe they were afforded so much space to play with ball in hand and were offered countless opportunities to run back at Ireland due to the naivety of their kicking game. The contrast between the sides in this key sector was frightening. Every time Tommy Bowe or Rob Kearney fielded a bomb, they were not only smashed in the tackle, but driven back five yards, offering an easy target for the Wallaby forwards to hit. That is the type of pressure patented by Irish teams over the years.
When the shoe was on the other foot, not only did Ireland kick to the safest pair of hands in the business in Israel Folau, but he could have had a tea break before a green jersey was spotted.
In highlighting Folau’s fielding ability and hang time in the air in the build up to this game, I assumed that Ireland, as a priority, would attempt to frustrate his efforts to get into the game by keeping the ball as far away from him as possible. We did the opposite, inviting him to run back at us with monotonous regularity. By the end of this contest he had carried the ball over 100 metres. That is a monumental contribution from a full-back. The other stats that defined Ireland’s performance was 15 missed tackles allied with 13 turnovers conceded.
Australia had their homework done entering this one. McKenzie shored up the scrum with the introduction of Sekopi Kepu on the tight head side even if it was loose head James Slipper who inflicted most of the damage in dominating Ireland’s scrum colossus, Mike Ross.
McKenzie also increased their competitiveness out of touch and at the breakdown by recalling Scott Fardy. Every time Ireland have managed to beat the Wallabies, the foundation was laid up front, with a superior kicking game the differentiating factor.
Last weekend Samoa’s set-piece was a disaster area and Ireland profited massively. It was a case of role reversal this time out as Ireland’s lineout lacked accuracy at key moments, none more so than when Paul O’Connell opted for the corner instead of tacking on another three points from a penalty to reduce the deficit to seven in the second half. A failure to control possession from that lineout let Australia off the hook. To add insult to injury, within minutes, the visitors reversed the roles producing a 10-man lineout maul of their own to put the game out of sight.
Arguably the most significant score for the visitors came as early as the eighth minute from a Quade Cooper penalty awarded by referee Chris Pollock from an attacking Wallaby scrum. Ireland was in the midst of the Celtic Tiger boom the last time Australia enjoyed any forward momentum in a scrum and the psychological reward accruing was far more beneficial than the three points registered on the scoreboard.
By the time the contest entered the final minutes, the Wallabies even had the confidence to withdraw substitute Liam Gill from the back row when defending a five-metre attacking Irish scrum to shore up the gap in the back line created by the sending off of Tevita Kuridrani for a reckless tackle on Peter O’Mahony. The fact they managed to win another scrum penalty added salt to a gaping wound.
Quite why Ireland were so passive throughout is a question that Schmidt must address before Richie McCaw’s men arrive in town. It often happens with a new regime that the players are so intent on learning the new calls and plays that they lose sight of the basic requirement of creating havoc when the opposition have possession. That manic aggression and physicality, allied with the necessary structure and organisation that characterised Ireland’s magnificent win over Australia at the World Cup two years ago, was sadly absent on this occasion.
Australia have turned a corner under McKenzie and Ireland must take heart from that. They look a completely different outfit to the one that stuttered badly against the Lions yet, poor and all as they were, they could well have won that series after the opening two Tests.
One of the main reasons they failed was due to a lack of creativity and direction from out-half. On the evidence of last Saturday, the decision by Robbie Deans to ignore the qualities offered Cooper and Matt Toomua was a serious error of judgement.
When in the zone, Cooper is the epitome of what Australian rugby was all about at its prime, winning World Cups in 1991 and 1999 and extending that excellent England side into extra-time in the 2003 decider. There was a cockiness and arrogance about those teams that offered a major psychological edge over all opponents, New Zealand included.
Cooper has that in spades and his exile from the Wallaby camp for that once-in-a-career opportunity against the Lions has made him value his time in a gold shirt all the more.
For Schmidt, the next few days will pose a significant challenge. There are so many areas that need addressing it will be a case of prioritising and identifying what needs to be done to stifle this latest All Black machine. Line speed, clarity and aggression in defence are key in the certainty that if it is anywhere near as passive and non-committal as last Saturday, Ireland will be on the receiving end of a hiding.
That fear factor is certain to elicit a positive response even if our dismal record of never winning a Test against New Zealand looks set to continue.
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