Desperately seeking rhythm and resilience in Melbourne

Australia 18 Ireland 9
It is going to be a tough few days for Ireland in Melbourne this week as Joe Schmidt attempts to provide the spark his tourists need to rebound from a draining opening Test defeat at Suncorp Stadium.

Going 1-0 down in a three-Test series is never an ideal scenario but that is the position the Irish find themselves in five days out from the middle game in this match-up with Michael Cheika’s Wallabies. 

Having talked Schmidt’s side up all week by reminding anyone who would listen about Ireland’s status as the world’s second-ranked team and Six Nations Grand Slam winners, Cheika’s side on Saturday set about brutally knocking them down a peg or three.

It was an immensely physical, defensive mindset that knocked the wind out of their guests’ sails in Brisbane.

It kept Ireland tryless as France had done earlier this year in the Six Nations opener in Paris — but this time there was no dramatic drop goal to get them out of jail. 

With a try in each half, from fly-half Bernard Foley on 32 minutes and then flanker David Pocock applying the knockout blow eight minutes from the end, Schmidt’s team experienced defeat for the first time in 15 months, bringing to an end a national-record 12-Test winning run.

The evening proved a frustrating experience for the watching coaching staff as Ireland’s changed-up team made uncharacteristic errors and coughed up ball too easily. The fresh faces — Joey Carbery, Rob Herring, and John Ryan, as well as early substitute Jordan Larmour — acquitted themselves well having been given rare starts against tier-one opposition.

CJ Stander was ruled to have been held up over the line after being put clear by Bundee Aki in midfield early in the second half when an Irish try would have dramatically altered the complexion of the contest after the men in green trailed for the first time this season at the interval, 8-6.

Yet despite three penalties from four attempts from Carbery and enjoying plenty of possession and territory in creating pressure, they failed to breach a watertight Australian defence and found no answer to the aerial prowess of full-back Israel Folau or the attacking creativity of dual playmakers Foley and inside centre Kurtley Beale.

All of which leaves Ireland under the pump and playing catch-up in a win or bust second Test at AAMI Park this Saturday (11.05am Irish time).

“It’s not probably the clarity I was looking for, to be honest,” Schmidt said after the 18-9 loss, when reminded of the scenario.

“It’s one of those things that it is tough mentally to get back up now because you are under pressure. The Wallabies will have a spring in their step. They know what they did caused us problems and put us under pressure but they’ll also know that there were a few times that we opened them up and caused them a few problems.

“We’ve just got to make sure that we score in behind that. Making line breaks and potentially being held up over the line or kicking balls out on the full when we’re in behind them, or losing the ball forward or not clearing it from the ruck; if we can amend some of that stuff then hopefully we can apply a little more pressure and take the spring out of their step a little bit because I think when they’ve got a spring in their step they’ve got some athleticism that can be very hard to contain.”

Schmidt will doubtless be working on getting his men tighter on Beale in midfield, the centre profiting greatly from the space he was afforded to pump crossfield kicks out to the dangerous back-three threats of Folau, Marika Koroibete, and Dane Haylett-Petty as Australia transformed defence into wide attack with devastating speed whenever they turned Ireland over, which was frequently.

A count of 21 turnovers was not a number usually associated with a team capable of stringing 41 phases together to eke out that victory in Paris just four months back and Schmidt is hoping his squad quickly get this bad night out of their systems after arriving in Melbourne from Brisbane yesterday afternoon.

“It’s probably not the result we’ll look at, it’s those elements of the performance that we can try to do something about because the result at the end of the day is whatever it ends up being. Hopefully we’ll exorcise a few frustrations as well that came out of (Saturday) so that by Tuesday we’ll turn around and we’ll be looking forward rather than back.”

Opposing head coach Cheika had praised his side for at least matching Ireland’s prodigious work rate in a helter-skelter contest, the first half of which had been described by Irish skipper Peter O’Mahony as “one of the quickest I’ve played in my career”. Yet the Wallabies boss refused to accept that endeavour was all this month’s adversaries had going for them.

“I think they’ve got a huge amount of skill and talent, great players as well. But their work rate is the key, it’s the engine behind there and they worked hard tonight too,” said Cheika.

“The Irish system is pretty good, their players are well-managed, and they came out here really well-drilled. That was a tight match, a very tight match, and we know how good they are. We know that it’s going to get harder. They’re getting over arrival, jet lag, they mixed a few of their players, they didn’t start Johnny (Sexton), they didn’t start Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy.

“They’re going to change their look next week and we need to change our look as well because we will all have seen each other. That’s the best part about the three-match series concept, where it’s like we’re jousting one week and it’s on another week and we’ve got to change the tactics and keep the same dynamics in there.

“I don’t think they’ll need anything else around that, they’re very capable of lifting it a level next week.”

It is Schmidt’s challenge now to ensure that is the case and he sees no reason why the squad cannot fix a variety of the ills on display in Brisbane.

“The margins were so skinny. I feel, you know, if CJ gets the try, suddenly all the pressure’s on them. The fact that we couldn’t quite separate ourselves from them, 9-8 (in front after 55 minutes), it was always tight, they were at home and I’ve got to say they were pretty well inspired tonight.

“The physical edge they brought and when you’ve got the athletes they have it makes it really tough.

“So we will dust ourselves off, there were some quiet positives from the game and I think there are some guys who will learn a fair bit from it as well. We did look a little bit out on our feet, a little bit underdone, a couple of guys who hadn’t played for a few weeks. I think they’re in a match-to-match rhythm, probably Bundee and Robbie (Henshaw) haven’t played for five or six weeks, and there’s a few others as well.

“So from that perspective, hopefully with that game under their belt they’ll just have that little bit more rhythm and we’ll be that bit more resilient.”

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, capt, 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, capt (J Conan, 56), J Murphy, CJ Stander.

Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa).

60 Seconds Panel

Key moment

In a fast and furious game at Suncorp Stadium, Australia kept Ireland tryless, breaking what had been a close game open in the final 10 minutes. Full-back Israel Folau had a try scratched after TMO Ben Skeen spotted an off the ball tackle earlier in the build-up. It was a harsh call but there was no argument about the Australian attack on 71 minutes as Folau, dominant in the air all night, soared on halfway to put Ireland on the back foot, Genia box-kicking upfield and Jacob Stockdale conceding a penalty for holding on five metres out. Australia, narrowly ahead at 11-9, took a gutsy decision to tap and go and their reward came moments later as the man-of-the-match David Pocock crashed over for the Wallabies, Bernard Foley’s conversion opening up an 18-9 lead.

Talking point

All eyes were on Joey Carbery as he started at fly-half for Joe Schmidt ahead of Johnny Sexton in a bid to expose the 22-year-old to big-time Test rugby. By and large, the Munster-bound number 10 passed the examination for his 56 minutes on the field. It was far from perfect and there were moments when there could have been better decision-making as well a missed penalty on 46 minutes he will rue, but after a shaky start Carbery dealt with the extra heat the Australians sent down his channel and managed the game well. Regardless of the result, and he left the field having handed his team a 9-8 lead, it all added up to a solid investment that will stand to Carbery and Ireland.

Key man

Flankers David Pocock and captain Michael Hooper had come in with big reputations as a major breakdown threat to the Irish and they lived up to the billing with a massive performance. Pocock not only scored the game-clinching try - his first since the 2015 World Cup final and in his first Test since returning from an 18-month sabbatical. He also put in a huge amount of work with 12 tackles and a handful of ruck and penalty turnovers while Hooper made 18 tackles and missed none.

Ref watch

Twelve weeks after being stood down as a touch judge at Twickenham for Ireland’s Grand Slam decider after refereeing an England training session, South African official Marius van der Westhuizen took charge of the Six Nations champions and penalised them twice in the opening minute. It was a fast-paced, helter-skelter contest and van der Westhuizen made mistakes, disallowing Israel Folau’s second-half try for an off-the-ball tackle way back in the build up. He also harshly pinged Stockdale for holding on when he had conspicuously let go of the ball after being tackled before re-gathering. The resultant tap and go led to Pocock’s decisive try.

Penalties conceded

Australia 11 Ireland 10.

Injuries

Ireland’s Keith Earls failed a Head Injury Assessment after going up for a high ball and getting an elbow in a fair challenge from opposing wing Dane Haylett-Petty in the 25th minute while both Conor Murray and Joey Carbery needed on-field treatment following big hits in contact during an immensely physical effort from the Wallabies. Joe Schmidt is confident Earls will come through his return-to-play protocols while he will also welcome back flanker Dan Leavy for Saturday’s second Test.

Next up

The bandwagon departed Brisbane yesterday and moved south to Melbourne ahead of Saturday’s second Test at AAMI Park, home of Super Rugby’s Rebels, who hosted the British & Irish Lions there in 2013. The tourists won 35-0 that night with Conor Murray and Sean O’Brien among the tryscorers in a side also featuring Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo. Ireland, however, have a Test series to save.



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