Ireland 26 Australia 23
It will probably take the rest period enforced by the removal of his appendix on Saturday for Joe Schmidt to reflect on a job well done with Ireland over the last 12 months.
Then again, the head coach who has driven the national team to fresh heights in 2014 with a Six Nations title, Guinness Series sweep and a No 3 position in the world rankings is not one to look back and ponder what has gone before. That would be wasting time, even in a hospital bed.
One game at a time, Ireland under Schmidt have been relentlessly plotting a careful and very deliberate path towards success, demanding improvement in every performance, step by pain-staking step. And with the RBS 6 Nations title defence beginning in a little over 10 weeks and a World Cup campaign looming next September, there is still plenty of hard work ahead.
The players know their boss and the high standards he sets for them. They realise that for all the kudos they are garnering with victories over South Africa and Australia in the last three weeks, more will be demanded when they return to Ireland camp, briefly over Christmas and then in earnest ahead of the championship campaign. That is the nature of their business, to make every minute count in the search for a team performance better than the last one. Schmidt will demand nothing less.
Those of us outside that bubble, however, can reflect on a job well done in the epic manner of Ireland’s victory in a riveting encounter with Australia at the weekend. Of course there were flaws, not least in the surrendering of a 17-0 lead, breathtakingly forged during the first 14 minutes, and haplessly thrown away in the 16 torrid minutes that immediately followed.
Johnny Sexton had got Ireland up and running with a penalty followed by a cross-field kick into space in the left corner that was clinically finished by Simon Zebo before a length of the field intercept score from Tommy Bowe sent the sell-out Aviva Stadium crowd into raptures. But they were quickly subdued by some sloppy Irish tackling, handling and decision-making that saw Michael Cheika’s Wallabies level the scores with two tries from scrum-half Nick Phipps either side of a try from Bernard Foley that took an age for the TMO to determine was good after claims of a forward pass from Phipps and a grounding from the fly-half that looked short of the line. They all stood and when Foley added a penalty in the 36th minute Ireland found themselves 20-17 down.
The half ended all square as Sexton book-ended his game-opening penalty with another on the stroke of the interval and then it was down to commitment. The Aussies call it ‘ticker’, the Maori word employed by Schmidt after his captain Paul O’Connell’s performance against the Springboks a fortnight earlier was ‘Mana’ and Ireland had both in spades in the second half. The records will show a second 40 minutes featuring two Sexton penalties to Foley’s one but this was about so much more than those kicks as the men in green fought to meet the challenge they had set themselves. Victory over South Africa was meaningless, their mantra had been, if they could not back it up by beating Australia.
If Ireland were to close out the autumn with a second Southern Hemisphere scalp they were going to have to repeat the defensive heroics they summoned against South Africa, getting off their line quickly and into the faces of the fast-thinking and acting Wallabies.
When the moment came, as Australia threatened to claw back the three-point deficit and emulate the All Blacks of 12 months ago with a last-ditch Houdini act, Ireland held firm.
They stayed calm, took a huge deep breath and stepped up to be counted, led from the front by O’Connell with a team of willing lieutenants.
The captain put in two big tackles, on Ben McCalman and Kurtley Beale, in the last two minutes that embodied the character of this rearguard while frustrating the Wallabies’ attacking threat and eating up valuable seconds, a small but significant contribution to Ireland’s total of 138 that needed to count in an extremely physical contest against the quick and powerful Wallabies.
Indeed, it was not until the 138th of them, producing an excellent turnover from substitute Ian Madigan with less than 10 seconds left on the clock that Ireland were assured of a victory O’Connell lauded as more meaningful than the 29-15 defeat of the Springboks.
“It was very satisfying to back up the South Africa win,” he said. “To beat South Africa the way we did, to pick them off accurately, was great. To back that up today makes it all the more satisfying. It just wasn’t a one-off win, to be able to keep our heads and close out the game was very satisfying.”
These are good times to be the Ireland captain and even O’Connell allowed himself to look forward to the potential in his team ahead of a crucial 10 months that will, he hopes, see key players such as Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien, Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble return from injury to bolster a squad whose strength this month has proven deeper than imagined.
“It is very exciting and it is tough on the guys that are injured because we have to focus on what we have to do and we have to move on,” O’Connell said.
“I’d imagine that makes them all the more hungrier to get back and when they do have to get back in as good a condition as they can.
“I think when you have a lot of quality players out injured and the team moves on. I’ve been there myself when the team moves on and does well and it is very tough and makes you very hungry.
“There is great potential there. Obviously lineout, breakdown today early on in the game was poor. Defensively in that middle 20 minutes of that first half we were poor so there is a whole number of areas we can improve on there.”
Now that’s something for the recuperating Schmidt to get his mind around.
IRELAND: R Kearney (F Jones, 78); T Bowe, R Henshaw, G D’Arcy (I Madigan, 59), S Zebo; J Sexton (E Reddan, 78), C Murray (E Reddan, 70-75); J McGrath, R Best (S Cronin, 67), M Ross; D Toner (D Foley, 61), P O’Connell, capt; P O’Mahony, R Ruddock, J Heaslip.
Replacements not used: D Kilcoyne, R Ah You, T O’Donnell.
AUSTRALIA: I Folau; A Ashley-Cooper, T Kuridrani (K Beale, 45), M Toomua, H Speight; B Foley (Q Cooper, 64), N Phipps (W Genia, 68); J Slipper (B Robinson, 75), S Fainga’a (J Hanson, 70), S Kepu (T Faulkner, 70), S Carter (W Skelton, 72), R Simmons; L Jones (J Schatz, 53), M Hooper, capt, B McCalman.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
It came right down to the wire, or 79:52 to be precise, for Ireland, as Australia threw all they could at the green defensive line in a bid to reel in their three-point deficit. That was when an Ian Madigan turnover finally relieved the pressure, to spark a roar of delight as the clock ticked past 80 minutes.
A year on from their last-minute heartbreak against New Zealand, Ireland have learned how to close out a game against world-class opposition, not necessarily in control but with a concentrated and committed defensive rearguard that will do wonders for confidence heading into a World Cup year.
Paul O’Connell turned in a real captain’s performance to earn his man of the match award, leading by example and epitomising his team’s effort with two great tackles in the 78th minute as Australia threatened from deep, a big hit on Ben McCalman and a superb takedown of Kurtley Beale.
Glen Jackson adopted a fairly lenient approach to his policing of the breakdown and yet Australia coach Michael Cheika still complained of “strange penalties against us”. Irish fans booed the TMO’s awarding of Australia’s second try after what looked a forward pass from Nick Phipps to scorer Bernard Foley though video analysis vindicated the decision. Penalties conceded: Ireland: 5 Australia 10
Four suspected concussions, to Gordon D’Arcy, Conor Murray, Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton, underlined just how physical this Test was. All will go through return-to-play protocols with their provinces this week. And then there was coach Joe Schmidt’s post-match hospital visit to have his appendix out. He is recovering well in St Vincent’s.
The Wallabies head to Twickenham in their final tour game against England. Ireland’s Six Nations title defence begins in Rome against Italy on February 7, just 75 sleeps away.
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