Ireland 27 Australia 24: You would forgive Ireland rugby manager, Joe Schmidt, if he sank into a fireside armchair, put his feet up, and stayed there for a few weeks to reflect on a job well done during an incredible month of Test rugby.
Except that is not how professional sport works — stay put for too long and you will find yourself at the back of the pack.
Which is why Ireland’s head coach will not ponder too long the achievements of his players, as satisfying and encouraging as they have been during the November international window.
Instead, he will furnish them with ways to improve, and he will focus minds on what promises to be an exciting Six Nations Championship in 69 days’ time. Scotland, at Murrayfield, on February 4, seems like a far-off assignment, particularly with four rounds of Champions Cup rugby and the festive Pro12 derbies to contemplate beforehand. But Ireland are on the front foot and Schmidt says there are further strides to be made.
That the Irish can look forward with optimism to 2017 is a testament to a scintillating month at the sharp end of the world game.
The historic first win over the All Blacks, in Chicago, on November 5, set the tone in marvellous fashion, and was followed by a heartening victory over Canada, at the start of the home Guinness Series, by a completely different starting XV and a matchday squad that featured eight Test debutants.
Losing to a vengeful New Zealand side in a brutal collision nine days ago was hard to take, but how a battered Ireland rebounded on Saturday to defeat Australia was perhaps most impressive of all.
Fly-half, Johnny Sexton, and centre, Robbie Henshaw, were ruled out beforehand, but Ireland also waved goodbye to Sean O’Brien on game day, with a hip-flexor injury.
During the game, Ireland’s backline suffered further losses: full-back, Rob Kearney, went after 11 minutes, right wing, Andrew Trimble, limped off on the half-hour, and centre, Jared Payne, failed to reappear after half-time.
It left Ireland with scrum-half replacement, Kieran Marmion, on the right wing, fly-half, Joey Carbery, at full-back, and still, against the odds and spearheaded by a titanic contribution from their forwards, Ireland beat the Wallabies, ruining the World Cup finalists’ hopes of a grand slam sweep of the Europeans. It was breathtaking stuff.
“You’re a little bit punch-drunk at the end of it,” Schmidt said, “but you just have to admire the players, the way they can turn themselves around, and prepare themselves on the back of one full training on Thursday.
“We didn’t have enough to train with on Monday. We had a number of guys who were very sore, then a light training on Tuesday, hit the ground running Thursday, and then hope to heck that you’re ready for Saturday.”
At times, on Saturday evening at the Aviva, Ireland had looked as punch-drunk as their boss had felt.
The injuries had stacked up and the early, 17-0 lead they had built, through tries from Iain Henderson and Garry Ringrose and the flawless place-kicking of Paddy Jackson, had been eroded as the previously sluggish Australia finally hit their straps.
A try from wing, Dane Haylett-Petty, converted by Bernard Foley before half-time, foretold a third-quarter fightback, as the Australian indiscipline that had seen Dean Mumm binned for a tip tackle on Tadhg Furlong was left behind.
There were only so many heroic tackles Ireland could hope to make. So, despite the excellent defensive contributions, not least from Marmion, captain fantastic, Rory Best, in his 100th appearance, and man-of-the-match, Josh van der Flier (a late call-up for O’Brien), the dam finally broke.
Tevita Kuridrani and sub wing, Sefanaia Naivalu, scampered over and Foley’s conversions pushed the tourists in front, his penalty on the hour giving them a 24-20 lead.
Bedraggled and disjointed, there seemed no way back for Ireland, but, when it mattered, the right people were in the right place at the right time.
The maul rumbled into action off a lineout and there were ferocious carries by replacement forwards, Cian Healy and Peter O’Mahony (O’Mahony was finally unleashed against the big guns after a frustrating return from injury).
The Wallabies were looking worried again and when Zebo sent the ball out to the left, Keith Earls was there to apply an excellent finish in the tightest of corners.
There was still work to be done, Jackson landing a touchline conversion and the forwards continuing to grind the Wallabies down, boosted by a rapturous ovation for Best, as he was withdrawn in the 76th minute. No wonder Schmidt said he was exhausted, yet not ready to rest.
“I’d like to reflect over the next week or so, and I’ll work my way around the provinces and catch up with the individuals who’ve played for us and have a bit of chat with them about how they’ve gone so far, and where we need to get to, because, I think, if you ever stand still you’ll get run over. So, we’ve got to try to keep pushing on.”
The progress made during Schmidt’s three years as head coach is remarkable.
Only Kearney, Best, Devin Toner, and Jamie Heaslip remained from the side he had sent out against Australia for his second game in charge in November, 2013.
This is an Ireland without the extraordinary presences of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, nor the redoubtable dependability of a Mike Ross or a Tommy Bowe.
Yet, what this team, and wider squad, have achieved in the last six months has given us a glimpse of the new crop of Irish talent.
They have the potential and depth to perhaps eclipse that golden generation of Drico and Paulie, O’Gara and D’Arcy.
This current group of players, Schmidt’s Ireland 2.0, if you will, has already accomplished feats their predecessors spent entire careers attempting without success.
A victory in South Africa, beating the All Blacks, and sweeping the southern hemisphere’s big three in one calendar year already mark them out as a new and different breed.
Yet, to even equal the Drico generation in the public’s mind would take a repeat of their 2009 Grand Slam.
Schmidt was typically guarded about the prospect of regaining the Six Nations championship that his injury-ravaged side relinquished to England earlier this year, having won back-to-back titles.
“I’ve no doubt England aren’t that keen to give it up either,” he said, before adding: “For us, it is just about rolling up our sleeves.”
Despite Schmidt’s caution, the 2017 campaign has all the ingredients of an instant classic, if everything goes to plan, and Eddie Jones’s English come to Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend for the final game, not just looking for a world-record-equalling 18th consecutive Test win in their sights, but with both sides gunning for the Grand Slam.
And after a month like this one, you get the feeling anything is possible for Ireland.
R Kearney (S Zebo, 11); A Trimble (J Carbery, 30), J Payne (K Marmion, half-time), G Ringrose, K Earls; P Jackson, C Murray; J McGrath (C Healy, 61), R Best, capt (S Cronin, 76), T Furlong (F Bealham, 70); I Henderson (U Dillane, 55), D Toner; CJ Stander, J van der Flier, J Heaslip (O’Mahony, 61).
I Folau; D Haylett-Petty, T Kuridrani, R Hodge (Q Cooper, 80), H Speight (S Naivalu, 55); B Foley, W Genia; S Sio (J Slipper, 68), S Moore, capt (T Latu, 76), S Kepu (A Alaalatoa, 68); R Arnold (K Douglas, h-t), R Simmons (S McMahon, 68); D Mumm, M Hooper, D Pocock.
Mumm 22, Foley 79
Replacement not used:
Jerome Garces (France).
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