NOW that’s what I call a test match. Such was the intensity, endeavour and commitment to keeping the ball alive that the opening half of Saturday’s memorable clash passed in a flash. There were so many moments of brilliance in that period alone, those in the stands barely had time to draw breath.
By the time the teams called a temporary cessation to proceeding at the halfway mark, we had already savoured a 40-point thriller. Even then, nothing separated the two teams.
That in itself was remarkable given Joe Schmidt’s men had raced into a 17-point lead in as many minutes, only for Australia to respond with 20 unanswered points of their own in the following 20-minute period.
The concept of what it means to put your body on the line for your country in a sporting contest was elevated to another level in this brutal contest with Gordon D’Arcy, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney all having to be removed from the action with concussive symptoms.
It took the intervention of the referee Glen Jackson, his assistant Nigel Owens and Ireland’s medical team to finally get Murray to the medical room in order to go through the extensive concussion tests that are now required. Thankfully he was deemed fit to continue.
The biggest problem facing Joe Schmidt now — notwithstanding the small matter of hospitalisation hours after the final whistle — is trying to keep a lid on expectation levels after this magnificent result. Twelve months on from the heart-breaker against New Zealand, it is clear the lessons from that last-second defeat have been absorbed and taken on board. Ireland now have the capacity to play right to the final whistle and the discipline in the heat of battle not to give away the cheap penalty.
You can talk all you like about systems, patterns and game plans, but Ireland won this due primarily to a bloody-minded refusal to accept defeat in the final passage of play.
Even then Australia had the winning of the game in their own hands when Ireland were down to thirteen men with both Sexton and Kearney prostrate on the ground after a clash of heads. The Wallabies failed to recognise that opportunity out wide and attack an area of the field where the only Irishmen still on their feet were two members of the medical team.
Even then it took a truly inspirational hit from their indefatigable captain Paul O’Connell to keep the tide at bay. For the past month in those brilliant Guinness series ads we have been reminded of the shuddering hit by Seamus Dennison on New Zealand’s Stu Wilson that came to define Munster’s doggedness against the might of the All Blacks on that famous day in Limerick all those years ago.
If Dennison’s bone-crunching tackle arrived early that day to establish the ground rules, O’Connell’s seismic hit on Ben McCalman with just two minutes to go and the Aussies ratcheting up the pressure was another influential statement as the crowd gasped and rose to their feet. It was that kind of day.
Over this autumn series we have been treated to some captivating contests, with New Zealand’s latest victory over Wales in Cardiff also a classic, but this one at the Aviva Stadium was by far and away the most physically competitive and enthralling from the first minute to the last.
It also bucked the trend with Ireland’s two prop forwards, Jack McGrath and Mike Ross, along with the entire back row of Peter O’Mahony, Rhys Ruddock and Jamie Heaslip putting in an incredible 80 minute shift. That is unheard of at this level of competition with Ross, in particular, making an invaluable contribution over the course of all three autumn tests.
Robbie Henshaw could play for another ten years and will never again be subjected to such an examination of his defensive capabilities. The outside centre channel is the most difficult to police from a defensive point of view given the fact that there is so much space to cover, so much traffic coming at you and so many split second decisions to make.
In the five tests since the departure of the great Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland have fielded five different centre combinations with four different players, Darren Cave (twice), Fergus McFadden and Jared Payne offered a go in the vacated outside centre role.
Henshaw is seen as the heir apparent by the great one himself and was finally offered his time in the iconic No 13 jersey on Saturday. O’Driscoll was a class act but brilliant players have retired before and Ireland have never taken to the field with fourteen men.
Somebody will always step forward to accept the responsibility even if they might find it difficult to fill the shirt with anything like the same class. Henshaw will be infinitely better for this experience. He has what it takes to make a significant impact at this level.
When it came to reacting to what was in front of you and making split second decisions, Henshaw wasn’t alone with Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe also making some great reads and big hits. Bowe even managed to turn an impossible situation into a game-changer when defending a three-on-one and what looked like a certain try for Australia into an invaluable seven pointer for Ireland. A fourteen point turnaround in a blink of an eye.
The pace and intensity of the opening half was incredible and played right into Australia’s hand. They love an unstructured game where the set piece is almost an added extra. With just three scrum engagements in that period Ireland were never in a position to examine their credentials while Australia were equally wary of Ireland’s prowess out of touch and refused to kick the ball dead.
Even in their own ‘22’, they backed themselves with ball in hand, content that they could create opportunities out wide by sucking Irish defenders into the contact area.
Michael Cheika has had no time to put a full management team together after his swift appointment and his touring party have no attack coach with them at present. Maybe they are better off as they appear liberated.
After losing their way in the second quarter, Ireland needed the break to reassess. That review produced a complete change in tactical approach with Ireland reverting to type and playing a more territorial game after facilitating the way Australia like to play in the opening period. It had the desired effect.
That is two big contests now since that New Zealand clash where Ireland have shown the mental fortitude to close out tight games. Last season’s courageous stand at the death at the Stade de France may have yielded immediate rewards in the form of a Six Nations trophy, but right now this second win on the trot over a Southern Hemisphere giant will feel every bit as satisfying.
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