HarpinOnRugby’s coverage of Ireland v Australia this weekend is brought to you by Dove Men+Care follow them at @DoveMen and #ScrumTogether
One thing I caught myself saying over and over aloud during this particular match (among many other things...apologies to those around me!) was : “That’ll do!”.
It’s a phrase I use often when a situation looks threatening for us and gets resolved partly because of our actions, but also partly because of errors on the part of our opponents, like when a Wallaby pass would go straight into touch.
So when I was looking for a headline which summed up how I felt about this topsy-turvy encounter, I reckoned that pretty much nailed it. Not a perfect performance, but under the circumstances it was a hard-fought and ultimately well-earned win which ended this historic November series on just the positive note we need ahead of the Six Nations.
Looking back at my preview, I had my concerns about our back line before kickoff...if I had known how our injury count was going to increase during the match I probably would have had my eyes closed for the duration! But a graphic put up by RTÉ around the 13-minute mark told the entire story of how the match began - Ireland 81% possession, and the score still 0-0.
And while our backs were indeed having their yips, like when Trimble put a little too much mustard on his pass to a wide open Keith Earls, all wasn’t rosy in the garden for the forwards either as for the second week in a row we had our first attacking lineout pinched from the grasp of Devin Toner. He is a brilliant asset for this set piece of that there is no doubt, but at this level the standard of lifting & jumping from the opposition can often negate his height advantage.
But the reason we were having those lineouts in their 22 was that the Wallabies were infringing at the breakdown, several times. Not rolling away, offside, even the odd high tackle - it looked as though Michael Cheika’s men had chosen to borrow from the All Blacks’ playbook last week and please don’t get me wrong - I’m not necessarily “whinging”, it’s more that it shows how coaches are learning that knocking us off our own gameplan is usually the best way to go up against us.
Eventually a penalty came in a kickable position (though without a warning despite the numerous pings) and we had no choice but to take the three points on offer - at least we were off the mark or as one spectator probably quipped : “That’ll do...for now.”
But as the clock kept ticking it became more and more apparent we’d need a lot more points than that to put away this Australia side wounded by an extremely-distant second finish in the Rugby Championship yet buoyed by three wins from three so far on this “Spring Tour”. Maybe a first half yellow card rather like the one the All Blacks shipped in Chicago? That would most certainly do.
Well in many ways, Dean Mumm’s challenge on Tadhg Furlong was every bit as crazy as that of Joe Moody on Henshaw. Absolutely no need for it...the only explanation I can think of is that of a player taking the predetermined raised levels of aggression too far.
The way he carried out the tip tackle suggested that Mumm’s head was telling him “what the hell are you doing?” as his body went ahead and did it anyway, albeit in slow motion. Referee Garcès needed a bit of help from his assistant Nigel Owens but they definitely came to the right decision, at least when it came to Mumm.
Even from my lofty perch (literally and figuratively) I could see on the big screen that as Furlong was being tipped, Rob Simmons was clearly “making contact with his eye area” - I wonder would a ref ever have the stones to yellow card two players at once?
Anyway…”just the one” was off the park for now and it was extremely important that we made the most of it much as we did against the All Blacks. And the injury count had already begun at this stage as Rob Kearney took a knee to the noggin and was replaced by Simon Zebo.
Up to that point we had been trying to find creative ways around the onrushing Australian defence but they just weren’t coming off for us, that is until a little dink over the top from Zebo fell perfectly for Earls to gather and eventually get a great offload to Iain Henderson who made it the rest of the way and finally we had our try.
This is the point where I should probably brag that I both predicted a 3-5 point win for Ireland AND a Henderson try, though for full disclosure, I thought the Ulsterman would get over as part of a pick and go series among the forwards.
So that made it 10-0 but everyone in the ground knew we couldn’t afford to rest on our laurels and Israel Folau beat a couple of tacklers to show what these Wallabies can do with the ball in hand before putting the ball out of play. We needed at least another score.
Well we didn’t quite manage one before Mumm returned but as he did, we were about to take a lineout in the 22 off yet another penalty against the visitors. It wasn’t the cleanest set piece ever still we kept possession and once the ball got away it came to Garry Ringrose.
After he darted over the line for our second try, Messrs Nugent & Keyes in the RTE commentary box said he reminded them of Brian O’Driscoll. I can see that alright, but his display on the day here reminded me more of Darce playing inside centre in 2004. All we’d want is a steady performance from someone out of his regular position and instead we got what was (for me anyway, sorry Josh you had a good outing too!) a man of the match performance.
Now...on this try...a bit of controversy that needs addressing...did Devin Toner block a possible tackler? Garcès took one look and said no. I took several looks. Let’s just say I’ve “seen them given” as blocks, but for me, at the time the tackle could have been made, Dev was standing his ground. When he nudges his opponent, Ringrose is well past them both. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it ;-)
So the conversion gets us to a superb and thoroughly deserved 17-0. The Wallabies began to come back at us but a touch of luck plus some timely tackles from the likes of centurion skipper Rory Best keep them at bay. With the clock at 39 minutes, a buddy sitting beside me gets up to go for a couple of pints.
While he was gone, he not only got beer but also visited the loo, got some chips and met a couple of people he knew along the way. By the time he eventually made it back to his seat, the score was 17-14!!! Gimme that bloody pint mate - I need it!!!
Accuracy is such a key element of any Joe Schmidt plan that you have to highlight when it is missing. Paddy Jackson didn’t have a bad half of rugby by any stretch of the imagination but his kick out on the full with just a minute left in the first half cannot be ignored.
Off the lineout the Wallabies finally saw one of their powerful running & offloading moves down the heart of our defence come to fruition as Hooper, Folau and finally Dane Haylett-Petty (their best player on the night I thought) combined for a last gasp first half score that would have definitely had their tails up.
So that made it just a ten-point lead despite all our dominance and things didn’t look much better at the start of the second half when it transpired that as well as Rob Kearney and Andrew Trimble, now Jared Payne had been forced from the action - I’m wondering if his back issue had something to do with the tiny gap required for that 39th minute try.
Anyway this meant Marmion had to go on the wing with Carbery at full back...at that stage I reckon Peter O’Mahony wasn’t ruling out another stint on the wing himself! But the road ahead seemed clear for Ireland...we needed to keep the game in the forwards for as long as we possibly could as we did have plenty of strong options still on our bench.
While it didn’t directly lead to their second try, I still think Jackson’s dink over the top from his own 22 was ill-advised and indirectly led to it. Like I said, it seemed to make more sense to let the pack handle ball advancement for the immediate future. Plus the Wallabies could clearly see a way back into the match and thus were switched on.
So although we snuffed out a few chances at first, their second try looked inevitable even after one was called back for a forward pass. Sure enough, eventually it was Kurindrani in the corner touching down before a beautiful touchline conversion from Bernard Foley cut our lead to just three as I was being handed my pint.
We did have a good response from Ireland after the restart as Earls was able to bat the ball down for us to recover and this finally gave our pack the platform they needed to make something happen. Yet another breakdown penalty allowed Jackson to pop over three crucial points as well as giving us time to take stock.
But before you could say “didgeridoo” they were back at us...first we had a bizarre moment when Pocock looked like he was a mile offside though he and the ref were the only ones on the pitch who seemed to notice a ruck hadn’t been formed, as Murray Kinsella outlines on 42.ie. From this Australia really should have scored but Folau butchered a clear overlap.
Yet we were still giving them chances and next it was Zebo kicking out on the full; when they went at us in the wide channels again eventually Carbery couldn’t stop substitute Naivalu from slipping past and getting under the posts allowing Foley a much easier conversion to give his side their first lead of the match. Shortly afterwards we shipped one of just THREE penalties on the day, our only one in a kickable position, which Foley duly chipped over.
While this time we were behind by four as opposed to Chicago where we were worried when our lead was by the same amount, there were only two words that described what Ireland needed for the final quarter - “dig” and “deep”. Sure, the XV was patchwork, especially the backline - though when Jamie Heaslip leaves the action before full time, you know you’re having a bad day personnel-wise.
The question was...could we have a defining moment similar to Conor Murray’s iconic hit on Julian Savea? The answer was yes, and this time it was another Munster man to provide it.
Australia possibly got a bit too confident in their abilities to attack out wide and off a restart they went almost all the way back to their own line and when it reached Michael Hooper he was met full force by Simon Zebo; this hit appeared to jolt us back into Chicago mode. They cleared but only as far as the 22 so we were coming back at them.
To be fair to the Wallabies, their defence was pretty good throughout but now it was our turn to have our tails up and our pack was able to put together a superb series of nine phases, including a monster clearout by Cian Healy on a seemingly-locked-on David Pocock and yet another strong carry from the Lions-beckoning Tadhg Furlong, before it was our turn to have quick hands in the wide channels for Keith Earls to dot down.
Now we had inched in front, which of course was awesome, but we really needed Paddy Jackson to stroke over the extra two from the touchline, which he duly did with an amazing strike under the circumstances. Those two points were crucial because I very much doubt our visitors were about settling for a draw.
We now had about ten minutes to see the game out and courtesy of a choke tackle by Garry RIngrose, the scrum resulting from it taking about 4 minutes including resets, a big hit from Sean Cronin, a trademark poach from Peter O’Mahony, and finally Bernard Foley seeing yellow for a physics-defying tip tackle on Devin Toner, we managed it very well.
For matches like this, we can be analytical until the cows come home, but the fact remains, they are cup finals. And the goal is to win cup finals, not look pretty while doing it. Given all we have gone through on the injury front, and given how we as Irish fans were feeling about test rugby 12 months ago in the aftermath of RWC2015, this was an excellent way to end the test year.
So to summarize, we completed a rare treble of wins over the “Tri-Nations” in 2016, Rory Best celebrated an illustrious ton of caps with another display that clearly puts him in Lions-leading contention, and we showed we can pull through a testing encounter even with a host of “second-string” players (shout out also to Kieran Marmion for a decent shift).
How else can I finish this post but like this - for now until what promises to be another exciting Six Nations...that’ll do!!! JLP