One coach ended up in hospital and the other was left with a serious World Cup headache: Ireland’s win against Australia told vastly different stories for two teams trying to prove themselves.
Ireland have established themselves as World Cup contenders while the Michael Cheika-led Wallabies are fighting to keep their heads above water.
The last time Australia lost three Tests on the tour of Europe, it cost coach Eddie Jones his job.
But even as they face that prospect this week, a Wallabies loss to England at Twickenham won’t threaten former Leinster mentor Cheika’s job.
That’s why he has an unwavering belief in the systems he’s trying to put in place.
It’s the same mission he had when he turned Leinster from underachievers to European Cup champions.
It’s the same mission he started when he arrived in Sydney to turn the NSW Waratahs into a Super Rugby powerhouse.
The difference this time is he doesn’t have the luxury of time. The Wallabies have just a handful of Tests remaining before their World Cup pool of death battles with Wales and England.
Cheika has spent the past month trying to push thoughts of the World Cup aside. Asked where his side was in the pursuit of “perfect shape” for his new game plan, he said: “About a six.”
Ask Ireland the same question and after seven Test wins in a row, including historic wins against Australia and South Africa, and the answer will probably be an eight or nine.
There’s a view in Australia that the Wallabies can win the World Cup. But that view comes from blind passion.
For now, the World Cup has to be viewed as fool’s gold. The Wallabies are dropping down the rankings at a fast rate when other teams are rising up, including Ireland.
Yes, Australia has the talent to be one of the top teams and don’t forget they’re missing James O’Connor, Stephen Moore, David Pocock, Wycliff Palu, Scott Fardy and Tatafu Polota-Nau this year.
But do they have the grunt to go with a flamboyant Cheika style? As one expert put it in Australia, the Wallabies have plenty of show ponies, too few prize-winning heifers.
That’s something Cheika is trying to change.
“There’s a perception in Europe that teams can out-muscle us through the middle,” Cheika said.
“I don’t know where it’s come from, but the only way to change it is with our actions and we’ve got to harden right up.”
The interesting sidebar is that the Wallabies’ performance against Ireland was probably their best of the tour, even though they beat Wales and the Barbarians.
Why? Because Ireland are genuine contenders for next year’s World Cup, despite some still having doubts.
As far as World Cup preparations go, the Wallabies have had a disaster. The coach quit, star players stood down and some of the country’s best talent — Matt Giteau, Nick Cummins et al — are ineligible for selection.
There’s no quick fix either. It’s impossible to build a game on power and high tempo attack overnight. But that’s the challenge that faces Cheika.
There’s little doubt the Wallabies have the razzle dazzle to match anyone. Nick Phipps’ second try against Ireland was proof of that.
But facts are facts and it’s pretty ugly. The Wallabies haven’t beaten New Zealand since 2011. They are dropping down the rankings. They’ve lost five out of six Tests.
That’s why Ireland have emerged as the underdog. Everyone will talk about New Zealand, hosts England and Wales and the usual suspects Australia and South Africa.
But how can you ignore Ireland? Seven Test wins in a row, the Wallabies and Springboks as prized trophy scalps and a Six Nations title.
It also shouldn’t be forgotten that they were Australia’s tormentors at the last World Cup, beating the Wallabies 15-6 in the pool stages in a crippling blow to our chances of winning the tournament.
That’s why most in Australia are calling them the ‘smokies’. Hard to imagine Ireland flying under the radar in less than a year, but it appears to be the case.
England will be predictably talked up, New Zealand are champions and the Springboks always lift for the tournament while Joe Schmidt will just have his team firing with crafty game plans.
Jonathan Sexton gave the Wallabies a kicking lesson, out-booting Bernard Foley and Matt Toomua in general play. The Wallabies prefer not to kick, Sexton showed why it’s such an asset.
Does experience play a part? The Wallabies are sorely lacking in that department while Ireland seem to be able to keep their players together and are building continuity.
As soon as taxi drivers in Dublin heard an Australian accent in the back seat, all they wanted to do was talk about Cheika this week. How he turned Leinster around. How they fear his return.
Cheika joked that he knew everyone was lying to him when they greeted him with a smile and said good luck.
“Ireland have a very clear style of rugby and they’re doing it well. The results are good and they’re going to be a big threat into the World Cup next year,” Cheika said.
So have we got two World Cup contenders or pretenders? Ireland have proven themselves, it’s up to the Wallabies to stake their claim.
— Chris Dutton is a sports reporter at The Canberra Times.
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