It had been hoped that Ireland’s first outing since last season’s Grand Slam heroics and captain Brian O’Driscoll’s 100th Test cap — 94 for his country and six for the Lions — would be a celebration.
It wasn’t quite that in terms of the overall result. But for O’Driscoll, whose day appeared to have been ruined by Australia captain Rocky Elsom, who had scored at the start of the final quarter, it ended in personal triumph.
His try in the final minute left Ronan O’Gara with a simple conversion to level the scores with what was the last kick of the match.
The Elsom phenomenon is a confusing one.
He was such a hugely popular and influential player in his time with Leinster, in whose colours he was a Heineken European Cup winner, that those from that province in the Croke Park audience did not seem to know if they should be happy or sad when he scored to put Australia 18-13 up.
Matt Gileau hit a gem of a conversion from the left touchline and with a seven-point lead Australia appeared to have done just enough.
But this was not about Elsom or Leinster, but about Ireland — the best side in the Northern Hemisphere last season, currently ranked fourth in the world and yesterday intent on seeing off the nation occupying third place.
On a near-perfect day weather-wise — dry, cool and a moderate cross-field breeze which blew towards Croke Park’s Hogan Stand — what at 2.50pm had looked like being a disappointingly small crowd suddenly grew to almost 70,000 which was the sort of attendance the hosts were entitled to expect on what was a lap of honour following the heroics of 2008/09.
Australia did not appear to be in the mood to join in the homecoming party, however.
Indeed, in less than three minutes they had rained on the parade by scoring a try which certainly was not in the spirit of the occasion.
It was a self-inflicted Irish wound, however, with under-fire Ronan O’Gara’s attempted long pass beyond Paddy Wallace leaving O’Driscoll with too much to do in trying to take it in his right hand. The Wallabies’ left wing, Drew Mitchell, pounced on the unexpectedly early Christmas present and romped in, leaving Matt Giteau to convert.
Almost at once O’Gara was handed a chance to atone when the visitors handed Ireland a penalty, straight in front and 30 metres out.
The fly-half was only too happy to punish the indiscretion and the deficit was cut to four points.
But it was hit and miss fare by Ireland for most of the remainder of opening 40 minutes, with something very good too often offset by something which patently was not.
The saving grace for ring-rusty Ireland — this was, after all, their first outing since completing the Grand Slam in Cardiff — was the unadulterated awfulness of the Australia line-out.
This was not an international-class setpiece or one befitting the side currently ranked third in the world.
Ireland fed off the shambles, with Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan disrupting their opponents, seemingly at will.
They Wallabies did, however, have the best player on the pitch in 21-year old open side marvel David Pocock.
O’Gara’s second penalty, scored after 22 minutes, made it 6-7, with Giteau replaying in kind three minutes later to restore the differential.
Ireland ought to have made more of their one-man advantage when Wycliff Palu was sin-binned on the half-hour, but failed to do so.
The second half began with Ausralia in control and ended with them on their own goalline.
Another Giteau penalty made it 13-6 early on, provoking an Irish response. Wave after wave of attacks ended with a try by Tommy Bowe, converted by O’Gara to tie things at 13-13.
But when Elsom got over, beating Thomas O’Leary and Rob Kearney’s attempts to thwart him, that appeared to be that.
Enter O’Driscoll to apply the finish to superb Irish pressure and send the crowd home happy after an absorbing battle.
IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O’Driscoll (Leinster, capt), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O’Gara (Munster), T O’Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster); D O’Callaghan (Munster), P O’Connell (Munster); S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: S Cronin (Connacht), T Court (Ulster), L Cullen (Leinster), D Leamy (Munster), E Reddan (Leinster), J Sexton (Leinster), K Earls (Munster)
AUSTRALIA: A Ashley-Cooper (ACT); P Hynes (Queensland), D Ioane (Queensland), Q Cooper (Queensland), D Mitchell (NSW); M Giteau (ACT), W Genia (Queensland); B Robinson (NSW), S Moore (ACT), B Alexander (ACT); J Horwill (Queensland), M Chisholm (ACT); R Elsom (ACT, capt), D Pocock (Western Forces), W Palu (NSW). Replacements: T Polota-Nau (NSW), M Dunning (Western Force), D Mumm (NSW), G Smith (ACT), L Burgess (NSW), R Cross (Western Force), J O’Connor (Western Force)
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)