Australia 16 Ireland 20
Absent captains, last-minute injury withdrawals, even a delayed arrival at the ground. Ireland’s end-of-season tour to Australia and its dramatic series finale on Saturday had all the ingredients of a thorough examination in advance of next year’s World Cup.
And just as Joe Schmidt’s squad had negotiated all other challenges put before them this season, this group of players and coaches came up with yet more solutions to pass this month’s critical test of their credentials.
Just two weeks ago, as Ireland regrouped following a proper bullying by Australia in the opening game of this three-Test contest in Brisbane, all the good deeds and achievements of the previous year had threatened to unravel.
The 12-game winning run that had surpassed any other period of success in national team history and culminated in a Six Nations Grand Slam and elevation to number two in the World Rugby rankings was at an end.
The newfound status in the pecking order behind the All Blacks was under immediate threat and the burgeoning reputation of a side built on relentless work ethic and devastating accuracy was in jeopardy.
Defeat by the Wallabies in the second Test in Melbourne and successive losses in the southern hemisphere would have brought into question the contention that the kings of the northern hemisphere were a serious proposition on the world stage.
The 18-9 defeat at Suncorp Stadium was not the half of it. Ireland lost the physical battle in contact and at the breakdown. Defence coach Andy Farrell called the players out on it publicly when they arrived in Melbourne to prepare for game two.
“We’ll see what we’re made of,” Farrell had said before pondering: “We’ll see what the good old-fashioned Irish ticker’s about, won’t we?”
Ireland’s players felt they had little option but to rise to the bait.
“That was a turning point in the tour,” Jordan Larmour said on Saturday after the third Test closed the book on a 2-1 series victory.
“Rugby is about the collisions, and if that is being questioned, it is a bit of an insult. When Andy said that, it gave us a kick up the ass, we know we have to step up.
“We showed in the last 10 minutes, when they were coming at us, all the boys dug deep and we are delighted to get the win.”
And so they should be, even if the manner of the victory ran their head coach through the mill in the closing quarter.
A week on from a 26-21 victory to level the series, Schmidt’s hope for a dream start at Allianz Stadium must have seemed overly ambitious as the team bus edged slowly through the Sydney traffic.
Thirty minutes late to the ground, the delay brought back dark memories of a similar episode in Edinburgh as the 2017 Six Nations got off to the worst possible start with a defeat by Scotland.
Sixteen months on, though, and Ireland’s adaptability in pressure situations has improved markedly.
No drama, just points on the board and in the most surprising of instances as Ireland not only survived the sin-binning of Jacob Stockdale for leading with an elbow into contact, costing his side three points, but emerged from the 10-minute numerical disadvantage at 6-6.
Johnny Sexton capped a ruthlessly efficient period of 84% possession rugby with the second of four first-half penalties to take a 12-9 lead to the interval. They also won the power play 6-3 when Folau was in the bin for an aerial challenge that took out skipper Peter O’Mahony and ended his involvement after just 30 minutes.
Again, Ireland dealt with the potential crisis. They had lost regular captain Rory Best on the eve of the tour to injury and now O’Mahony but just as Australia’s attack would come in wave after wave in those final 15 minutes, so did Ireland’s leaders in those moments of adversity.
Sexton took over the captaincy and led by example. So too man of the match CJ Stander, who finished off a strong Irish maul with the opening try on 44 minutes for a 17-9 lead.
Yet Australia came storming back, Marika Koroibete scoring a Foley-converted try 10 minutes later to make it a one-point game.
As Larmour suggested, Ireland needed some last-ditch defensive heroics to hang on and some fortune when Wallabies substitute hooker Tolu Latu was penalised two minutes from time for going off his feet at a ruck when he appeared to be fairly supporting his own body weight.
Sexton accepted the invitation and nailed the penalty to make it a four-point game, leaving the Wallabies chasing a try when a penalty or drop goal would have previously done the job.
Ireland even survived a late TMO check on a potential deliberate knock-on by Stockdale before they were able to claim a famous victory.
Stress test? You betcha.
“I know my stress levels were high,” admitted Schmidt.
“It was tough watching those last few minutes. That four-point margin was precious.
“They’re the fine margins, we keep having them with Australia. The last two Test matches in Dublin, three-point margins where you’re hanging on at the end and last week, a five-point margin but they’re flooding through just outside our 22 in the last moments of the game. And again tonight they had us under massive pressure.”
No wonder Schmidt breathed a sigh of relief.
A first series win in the southern hemisphere since 1979, when Ireland won both Tests in Australia in a two-game series, proves they do not come easily but Ireland have done it to add to their Six Nations title.
“We have put a couple of unusual things together, good, unusual things,” said Schmidt.
“And it is good because it does put a line in the sand, to back things up. We don’t want to be one-hit wonders, but while we have earned where we are tonight, in the scale of things, we want to keep growing.”
The Ireland boss has some recent Six Nations precedent to remind him how fleeting life at the top can be.
“It is so fickle, so competitive, and I know how quickly it can turn. This time two years ago, England won a grand slam and they went one better than us, they won 3-0 here against Australia.
“Until Saturday’s win, they had lost their previous five Test matches and throw in the Barbarians result there, too. They have had to keep their heads above water. It’s not easy.”
AUSTRALIA: I Folau; D Haylett-Petty, S Kerevi, K Beale, M Koroibete (R Hodge, 69); B Foley, N Phipps (J Powell, 61); S Sio (T Robertson, 61), B Paenga-Amosa (T Latu, h-t), S Kepu (T Tupou, 56); I Rodda (N Hanigan, 71), A Coleman (R Simmons, 56); L Tui, M Hooper – captain (P Samu, 16), D Pocock.
IRELAND: R Kearney (J Larmour, 57); K Earls, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath (C Healy, 56), N Scannell (R Herring, 56), T Furlong (John Ryan, 66); D Toner, James Ryan; CJ Stander, P O’Mahony - captain (J Murphy, 30), J Conan (T Beirne, 69).
Replacements not used: K Marmion, R Byrne.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
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