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Ireland's heroes lead from front in win over Aussies

George Hook

Ireland gained an extraordinary victory over Australia in a match that even the best wordsmith would describe in the old cliché of a game of two halves.

Ultimately, those who imagined that it would be a simplistic battle between the Irish forwards and the Australian backs were proved right.

Michael Cheika was undone by the same weakness that had ended the career of at least three of his predecessors. The Australian pack now, as before, is a lightweight unit and when push comes to shove, and that applies particularly to the scrum, they are found wanting.

Just a week ago in an eerie foretaste of Saturday, Cheika's charges could not pull out a victory in the closing minutes against France because the forwards could not control the ball in possession, particularly at the scrum. Similarly, Ireland's victory in the last World Cup was predicated on the last-minute withdrawal of key Wallaby forwards.

That said, the Australians will deliver value for money irrespective of results in the build-up to next October. As it stands, England will dominate them and Wales may not have the firepower to do likewise.

The first 40 minutes on Saturday were helter-skelter and one suspects that at half-time Joe Schmidt was not a happy camper as his team got drawn in to a contest of loose rugby quite out of character with the game plan devised by the scholarly coach.

His team got the perfect start and was 17 points clear in as many minutes. The first try owed everything to Jonathan Sexton's vision under pressure. Australia, not for the first time in the afternoon, lost the ball in the maul and wing Adam Ashley Cooper got tied up in the melee.

Scrum-half Nick Phipps dropped back to cover the space and in a trice, with a talent gifted to the very few, the Irish number ten kicked a ball to the corner which bounced favourably for Simon Zebo to score.

In the 1987 World Cup, Australian coach Alan Jones spent hours with his out-half, kicking to make a ball bounce up rather than forward.

I am not sure if Sexton deliberately created that kind of kick but watching his technique, it was markedly different from any other during the afternoon.

Ireland then got a huge break which should have ended the match as a contest. Phipps butchered a three-on-one overlap and Tommy Bowe, in an action born of despair, went for the intercept and Ireland were off to the races. It was a 14-point turn-around.

At this point Ireland lost the run of themselves. Zebo tried a 50/50 offload and Phipps went 50 metres to score a magnificent try. It got worse with the try of the season or any season.

The Australians, in an effort to rival the Barbarians in Cardiff in 1973, went over 70 metres with passing that owed everything to skill and confidence.

Ireland were needlessly on the rack and Cheika would have been beaming on his way to the dressing room.

If the Australian wanted more of the same in the second half, one suspects that Schmidt read the riot act and demanded discipline and control up front. One is in awe of his commitment when one considers his medical condition, which was revealed post-match.

The result was a second 40 minutes of attrition which did not have a try but was nonetheless compelling. Led by Paul O'Connell, the Irish exerted ferocious pressure that forced the Wallabies to attack from deep.

In his eagerness to win, the Australian coach made a change that ultimately may have cost him the win that he craved.

The introduction of Quade Cooper for Bernard Foley reduced the Wallaby kicking game at a time when they needed to get field position.

To be fair, losing his most influential player, centre Tevita Kuridrani, meant that Australia were reduced to flair players best suited to being on the front foot.

Heroics abounded among the men in green but Mike Ross should have been man of the match because Ireland could not have won this game without him.

An Irish scrum in the final minutes with Rodney Ah You at tighthead would almost certainly have given the opposition, field position, quick ball and, above all, penalties that would have doomed the home team to defeat.

How Ross has survived this November is a testament to his courage and attitude rather than necessarily his fitness and technique. He truly was the man of the series.

The drum rolls are already beating for next October.

 

Where the game was won and lost

1. Defensive shape and inner steel

As the Wallabies cranked it up in the second half - which oddly saw neither side manage a try after a collective five were scored in the first half - Ireland had to mine reserves of fortitude that surely pushed them close to collapse. But they did it with Paul O'Connell and Ian Madigan putting in huge tackles to keep Australia at bay in the massive rearguard that was fought at the end.

Hats off to Les Kiss and the side's levels of belief.

2. Jonathan Sexton's kicking

The Ireland out-half had so much more of a balanced and controlled game than his starting opposite number who missed two vital conversions. Sexton kicked 16 points and only missed one from seven shots at goal as well as carving out the opening try for Simon Zebo with a beautifully weighted chip in behind the Wallaby back three and tried to mix his game as much as possible despite the rough stuff that, predictably, came his way.

3. Leadership on the park

In the not too distant past, an Irish side which had led 17-0 against a southern hemisphere giant and then watched their lead ebb away, could well have allowed themselves become totally undermined. But that's not the case with this team. True, they knew that the Wallabies were just going to keep offloading, but it took huge reserves of composure and leadership, not just from the likes of O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip but throughout the team, to survive the onslaught.

4. Lucky breaks

Well, there's always a fair smattering of that to be had but, in fairness, Ireland rode theirs well. The bounce of the ball for Zebo's try was perfect and then Tommy Bowe's intercept when a Wallaby try was in the offing was also a very skilful but also fortunate read by the Ulsterman. They were also helped in that Bernard Foley missed two fairly standard conversions but Ireland did enough to deserve it regardless of the rub of the green.

5. Ian Madigan's impact

You could make a powerful argument for saying that Australia's star-studded replacements bench clearly had the edge here but, then again, the Aussies didn't have Ian Madigan. His impact was pretty impressive and this for the player who had to switch from centre to out-half after coming on. His vital hit on James Slipper saved a score and a tackle on Michael Hooper won a turnover while he was also there to seal off Wallaby possession in the final play.

6. The Schmidt factor

Sorry, but you just can't leave Joe out of this one and not simply because of his own health issues which emerged after the match. The Kiwi has galvanised this side and brought it to a place few thought possible. He has done this through meticulous preparation and raising the bar when it comes to performance, He misses nothing and gets the very best out of his squad. It's no guarantee of long-term success but, so far, it's pretty good.

Michael Sadlier

Belfast Telegraph

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