Monday, June 25, 2018



So the series is tied at 1-1.  Ireland have just increased their lead in the third and final test from 16-17 to 16-20 thanks to a ballsy penalty kick from Sexton after milking every second (perhaps even a few more) out of his time allowed.  The clock shows 78:58 as Bernard Foley prepares to take his restart kick.

It's not merely the Wallaby outhalf's body language that tells you what he's about to do.  He had been doing it since literally the first kick of the match, arguably targeting our captain Peter O'Mahony in the process.  It was clearly a play forged by Michael Cheika and his brains trust to give his side an edge in both possession and territory and apart from a contentious yellow card, it had worked pretty well up to this point.

And it was to work again.  The kick had just enough height on it and fell just short enough over the 10m line for Israel Folau to leap high into the Sydney evening sky for the umpteenth time and pull down the 'pill' for his side.  The Wallabies had it back, and were no doubt going to set about bombarding the Irish defence with crashes and offloads as they had done for the vast majority of the second half.

This left us two choices.  

After a long, challenging and mostly successful season for everyone in the squad, perhaps we couldn't have been 'forgiven' for collapsing under the weight of another kitchen sink being thrown at us by our hosts, but as circumstances go, they definitely count as 'mitigating'.

Or, there was Option B.  Take this moment in the AAMI Stadium in June 2018 and compare it to the Aviva Stadium in November 2013, remembering two important words....'system errors'.  We all know what happened that day but not half as much as anyone who has trained with Joe Schmidt ever since.  I dare say every defensive coaching drill in the meantime has been specifically designed just for moments like this one - forget the exhaustion, dig deep into your adrenaline reserves, and put the rigid structures into practise when it matters most.

Well it was always going to be B wasn't it.

And remember - as Foley was taking the kick, the Irish lads were also, in fact probably more so, occupied with their plan to use the ball ourselves, so when Folau won it, we then had to quickly switch into defensive mode so as not to give our hosts any inkling of an advantage during the transition.

This part went well for us.  On phases 2 (carry by Foley, tackle by Murray), 3 (Hanigan-James Ryan) and 4 (Tupou-Herring) they couldn't get it past our 10m line, which meant by this stage our cordon across the pitch was pretty well set.

But these Wallabies were far from done.  If the crash ball wasn't paying dividends they had other options, like an inside ball to pacy winger Dane Haylett-Petty, for example, and his carry got them further into the Irish half on phase 5 before he was hauled down by man-of-the-match CJ Stander.

Next up was outside centre Samu Kerevi whose deft step got them even further, until he was halted by John Ryan.  Then it was Taniela 'Tongan Thor' Tupou barrelling his way into our 22, grabbed by James Ryan.  7 phases gone.

For phase 8 it was Folau getting involved again and he blew by Robbie Henshaw of all people...could this be the error that lets them in?  No, because Conor Murray and Rob Herring had their centre's back metaphorically, as well as the Aussie 15's literally.

The next phase, a short carry by sub lock Rob Simmons, didn't get much yardage but it was significant because as he was tackled by James Ryan (giving him a personal hat-trick in this sequence), the hooter sounded, and now it was the Wallabies' turn to make a they keep on going through the middle or is now the time to make something happen?

Well, the ball got into the hands of Kurtley Beale on phase 10 so there's only one answer to that question...he makes an arcing run towards the Irish defenders and has Foley with him - Bundee Aki is caught between the two five-eighths.

Beale draws Aki towards him before he offloads to Foley, but the Connacht centre somehow manages to regroup and get his arms around the outhalf, who is able to ship the ball to the wide players outside him but he's off balance in the tackle enough for the ball to find grass and eventually roll into touch...that's game over, right????  

If you honestly thought things were that simple then you hadn't been watching this absorbing series.  Of COURSE there was something the ref and TMO had to look at, though given the Wallabies had been pinged for a deliberate knockon moments before, it was fair enough to investigate the suggestion of one here.

Now it's true that Jacob Stockdale has had a penchant for interception tries this season, but as camera angle after camera angle showed the ball sail past his outstretched fingers, it was less and less likely that there was a touch.

I do have a feeling that if rugby used a 'snick-o-meter' like they have in cricket, something might have registered but that said, TMO Ben Skean had already made quite a lot of use of this mysterious 'Camera 7' angle so when he finally started to speak to referee Pascal Gauzere, he could have said anything.
"I must have clear and obvious evidence...there is no clear and obvious evidence...
That's all I needed.  We've only gone and bloody done it!!!  A series win down under to add to the November sweep, Grand Slam and in Leinster's case, the double!!!!  Insert Danish lager ad reference here!!!!

Now in case you're wondering why I have harped for so long on just two minutes of play, the answer is simple.  That passage defined our attitude not only in this series, but all throughout this 2017/18 campaign.  

I have name-checked the tacklers for each of those phases but of course it's not merely about getting the man down, it's about what your team-mates are doing to either turn the ball over, thwart the next phase or particularly in this case, not add to the already-high penalty count.  And all of this came at the end of a second half where we had been pretty much 'under the kosh' throughout.  

Actually it started brightly for us, as have many post-interval periods during this impressive run of form.  My concerns that we had been taking too much out of possession in the first half were put to rest by Johnny Sexton, who on the 7th phase of a drive put a clever crossfield kick into the 22, with Bundee Aki brilliantly following up to put Nick Phipps under pressure on his line.

Then we had Adam Coleman getting involved again.  His name kept popping up throughout the three matches and it was rarely for good reasons.  How his denial of Conor Murray's planting of the ball against the base of the post in the first half wasn't a penalty try I'll never know, but he was pinged for that, he was pinged for an illegal clearout in this sequence and given a 'final warning', and then I'm pretty sure his 'injury' after a collapsed maul in the next sequence is what kept him away from further sanction.

Still, despite yet another week when a ref was reluctant to show a yellow card for repeated infractions, we managed to maul our way (a set piece that mostly went well for us both with and without the ball) to a try courtesy of Stander and although Sexton missed the conversion, this gave us a two-score lead to bring home, which is exactly what Joe Schmidt & co were looking for.

But having already praised the boys in green for not laying down when the going got tough, I must also do likewise for the boys in gold.  

They had a poor first half by their standards and were extremely lucky to be just three down at the break, particularly after a curious couple of decisions while Jacob Stockdale was on the naughty step  (like why kick for the posts for the original penalty and not only waste time but also an opportunity for 15v14 on our try line?).  All of that, plus the early loss of their skipper (though we lost ours too), plus the Stander try, would have finished many a team, but not this lot.

I counted six visits to our 22 in the final half an hour or so of the match before that final onslaught.  They did of course manage one try, when Foley put one through rugby league style for Koroibete to run on to and it was a fine finish, but on the other occasions if their outhalf wasn't missing a kickable penalty, the attacks were getting shut down by the Irish defence.

Yes, they do have a couple of legitimate beefs on the refereeing during that time...Keith Earls tackled Beale without the ball as the Wallaby was clearly running a support line with no sanction, while a forward pass from Joe Powell at a critical moment could easily have been called 'flat'.  But I'll let the likes of 'Green and Gold Rugby' focus on those, because for every one questionable outcome for them, there was at least one for us if not more.

Overall it was a final quarter display worthy of the number three team in the world, but just maybe not good enough against the team ranked one place above them.

As I'm focusing on the Irish team effort more than anything I don't want to single out too many individuals, but I will mention two from the have to feel for Ross Byrne not getting on for his first cap but the way the match turned out, I'm sure he understands and there will be plenty of game time up for grabs in November.

Then there's Jordan Larmour...what a meteoric rise he has had this season, arguably the fastest given James Ryan had already been capped this time last year.  He put in a great shift when Rob Kearney was forced from the pitch and that 23 jumper could well be his to lose at this point.  It will be interesting to see how Leinster deploy him next season.

But more than anything else, you have to look at this series as more than the sum of its parts.  Somebody added up the scores from the three matches and it came out to an even 55-55, which might suggest an overall equality, though that is not what actually happened IMO.

Yes, the series was absorbing.  Yes, it went right down to the wire.  And yes, the Wallabies did extremely well and I wouldn't discount their part in the enjoyment of the series for a moment...but the way I see it, they were playing at the top of their game because they simply had to - we gave them no choice.  

In Brisbane, we took a gamble with our selection which let them in though even there we could have won with a bounce of the ball in our favour.  But the reason we made that decision was because we believed we were the better team, and as time went on throughout the 240 minutes, we played like it until we were running on fumes, and as it turned out that was enough for us to see the job through.

Another fact many like to point out is that it's our first series win there since 1979.  Again, that's some nice trivia but again, it doesn't tell the story.  Back then, for us to pull off a win like that was akin to Accrington Stanley pinching a 1-0 win over Man United on a muddy January afternoon in the FA Cup.

Now, things are very, very different.  We're not some scrappy upstarts hoping to take down bigger opposition...we ARE the bigger opposition.  

How many times over the years have we watched the All Blacks and moaned about how lucky they were with a TMO call or how many times Richie McCaw got away with things?  Well I for one know I was doing all of that and more.  Yet they still kept on winning the vast majority of times.

So when we string together an amazing sequence of results, particularly in the manner in which we have done over the past year or so, why shouldn't we feel like we belong in the world's top two?  Or feel like we can push for number one?  Or feel like we can push past the supposed holy grail of the World Cup semifinals?

You could say the points I'm making in this writeup are very similar to those from last week's.  But that's intentional.  In my preview on Friday I said... 
"All roads lead to RWC2019 and between now and the autumn this performance will be the biggest indicator of where we are. "
...and the boys didn't let us down, proving the previous week was far from a 'once-off'.  

So as we prepare for a celebratory summer, maybe, just for now, we can put aside all the "yeah, but we rode our luck...." and "yeah, but the officiating was poor..." and "yeah, but why didn't players X, Y and Z get more game time..." and use the coming weeks to not only bask in the glory of a monumental season, but also to allow our mindset to reach a point where our expectations match those of the Irish players and coaches.

Going by the way they talk in media appearances and more importantly, the way they approach this beautiful game from kickoff right to the final whistle, it's clear to see this is a work in progress and I for one can't wait to see how much further we can go.   JLP

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019