A clean sweep from the November Internationals and all looks rosy in the Irish rugby garden.
The big difference between Saturday’s stunning victory and the win over South Africa was Australia played extremely well whereas I think at least 10 of the Springbok players had poor matches while collectively they were unable to react to the tactics and physicality Ireland brought on the day.
Australia, who had been bullied by France the weekend previously, looked like a side determined to settle some wrongs and if they continue to develop under Michael Cheika they will be major World Cup contenders.
Huge credit must go to Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff yet again, especially for the tactical changes made at half-time when the momentum seemed to be with the visitors.
The first 40 minutes were played at a savage pace and when the Australians were allowed control the speed of the game it suited them as the average metres per minute that are run in Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship are 15 metres higher than their equivalent in this side of the world.
Australia were using a system in attack that allowed them to throw the ball from one touchline to the other directly or by using their bigger forwards to hit the middle of the field and then attack off that midfield ruck with quick players stacked either side. When they attacked off a touchline their scrum-half, Nick Phipps, was so long with his pass that the receiver was already outside the fifth Irish defender and they had the skills to seriously stretch us.
During the interval, Ireland moved to counter that threat by putting less bodies into the defensive rucks while they had better spacing between each defender, which meant that we were not as exposed out wide.
Crucially too, Ireland’s kicking game was much more precise in the second half and we avoided delivering ball down the throat of the ever-dangerous Israel Folau. We managed to play most of the second half in their half and also controlled the speed of the ball at the ruck. It was only in the last 15 minutes with the arrival of “impact” subs like Cooper, Genia, Beale and Skelton that we looked vulnerable.
In those incredible final few minutes every Irish player ran themselves into the ground to secure victory and ensure there was no repeat of the heartbreaking loss to New Zealand 12 months ago.
I think this bunch now will believe they have the players and the coaching group to become Ireland’s greatest team ever. Whether they are good enough to win a World Cup or not remains to be seen but certainly a semi-final should be the minimum target. And then you are only two 80 minutes away from creating history.
To become better we need to get our best ball carrying forwards like Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy back fit even though McGrath and Ruddock both had strong series. We need to fix our scrum as I feel that Australia edged us in this sector while we will also look to evolve our attack over the coming months so that we ask more questions of opposition defences. And there are few more qualified that Joe Schmidt to tackle such problems and produce solutions.
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