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Ireland's epic win over Australia has fuelled their ambition

Ireland 26 Australia 23

Ruaidhri O'Connor

File 2014 under the 'good year' section of the Irish rugby archives and savour the feeling before moving on to what comes next.

Joe Schmidt's side will finish the calendar year ranked third in the world having downed a second southern hemisphere giant in three weeks, reaffirming their place as the top team in Europe.

Perhaps what is most exciting is the list of bodies to come back into the squad before next year's Six Nations and the World Cup.

Ireland have achieved plenty in Sean O'Brien's absence, but what could they do if the Tullow Tank was able to add his unique brand of ball-carrying to the equation?

Like the South Africa win, there is much to improve on from this victory over an Australia side who fought back from 17-0 down and looked like they might cut loose around half time.

Michael Cheika's charges faded badly after half time as the team thinking on their feet outsmarted the one playing with its heads up.

Ireland's discipline was imperious, with the home side conceding just five penalties to Australia's 10. In the 13 games of Schmidt's tenure, his side have yielded just one yellow card.

Their defensive efforts stepped up a notch after half time and in the closing stages, not dissimilar to the scenes against New Zealand a year ago, their opponents went through the phases as they searched for the winning try.

Led by Paul O'Connell, the gold waves were repelled. Finally, Ian Madigan put his body on the line and came away with the penalty. A year on from his role in Ryan Crotty's try, it was just reward.

In the absence of his hospital-bound coach, who had his appendix removed after the game, it was left to the captain to make some sense of the year and look forward to next season.

"Yes, it is very exciting and it is tough on the guys that are injured because we have to focus on what we have to do and we have to move on," O'Connell said.

"I'd imagine that makes them all the more hungry to get back. I've been there myself when the team moves on and does well and it is very tough.

"There is great potential there. Line-out, breakdown early on in the game was poor. Defensively in that middle 20 minutes of that first half we were poor so there is a whole number of areas we can improve on there.

"If we can do that, who knows what can happen?"

No team will be happy with a scenario in which they score 17 unanswered points in a quarter of an hour and still need a penalty with the last kick of the half to go in level.

A crazy first half was followed by a cagey second, in which Ireland took control of the tempo and defended brilliantly. Their discipline held and Johnny Sexton's two penalties edged Bernard Foley's solitary effort.

Sexton had nailed one of two penalty attempts by the time Ireland's early party got started. Rory Best ripped the ball from a Devin Toner choke-tackle and, spotting the Wallabies had yet to re-organise, Sexton chipped a perfectly weighted ball for Simon Zebo to score.

The Wallabies looked to hit back immediately, with Israel Folau looking dangerous, but a huge Jack McGrath and Robbie Henshaw hit on Sekope Kepu put Nick Phipps on the back-foot and his long, floated pass was picked off by Tommy Bowe, who raced the length of the field.

Australia were shell-shocked and Ireland were beginning to look like they might run riot as Henshaw claimed an up and under and the backs began to play.

In an instant, though, the game changed, as Zebo looked to off-load out of the tackle to Sexton only for Foley to get a hand in. The ball bounced to Phipps and the scrum-half slalomed to score from inside his own half.

It suddenly became apparent that Ireland were losing the battle at the gain-line and after a series of forwards were batted backwards, a poor Murray pass was followed by a hurried Sexton kick and the visitors had field position.

Their maul was felled, but Foley's cross-kick to Henry Speight was inch-perfect. The debutant was stopped by Rob Kearney, but Foley managed to get through Rhys Ruddock's tackle to score.

Crucially, the fly-half pulled his conversion and would do so again after playing his part in Phipps' second try, a wonderful effort from the backs, who exploited some shoddy tackling to with sparkling skills to put the scrum-half over.

Foley added a penalty as Toner strayed offside and the swing was complete, but Kepu gave Sexton one last chance and he levelled the score on the cusp of half-time.

"There wasn't a big chat or anything," O'Connell said of the interval. "There are a few processes you need to do, and when they have the ball there's certain things you need to do.

"There wasn't a whole lot of tactical shifting or doing anything different, and I think fitness as well was a big part of it."

It helped that Australia lost the tackle-busting talents of Tevita Kuridrani after seven minutes of the second half, although his replacement, Kurtley Beale, looked dangerous.

Ireland's improved line-speed in defence and increased numbers in the tackle limited the away team's threat and it was the Wallabies who seemed to tire.

Sexton nudged Ireland ahead, but Foley responded. It was 23-23 with half an hour to play, but there would be just three more points as the Racing Metro fly-half nailed his one chance after James Slipper went off his feet.

After that, it was up to the defence and the discipline. Ireland finished with an unrecognisable backline due to a series of head injuries, but the likes of Madigan and Felix Jones made their tackles.

Cheika was left to grumble about Ireland's tactic of kicking the ball away and some refereeing decisions, but he had reasons to be optimistic.

For Ireland, it was a nice end to a good year but O'Connell sees room for further improvement.

"It was very satisfying to back up the South Africa win," he said. "To back that up makes it all the more satisfying. It just wasn't a one-off win.

"You want to win tight games but the thing about it is every other team is getting better as well.

"I enjoy the way the coaching staff do it: just address what was poor and try and make it better from the previous game and whatever was good, try and get better at that."

That next game is Italy away in the Six Nations opener in February and the beginning of a World Cup year.

Ireland have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.



IRELAND: R Kearney (F Jones 78); T Bowe, R Henshaw, G D'Arcy (I Madigan 59), S Zebo; J Sexton (E Reddan 78), C Murray (E Reddan 71-77 temp); J McGrath, R Best (S Cronin 68), M Ross, D Toner (D Foley 62), P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony, R Ruddock, J Heaslip.

AUSTRALIA:I Folau; A Ashley-Cooper, T Kuridrani (K Beale 46), M Toomua, H Speight; B Foley (Q Cooper 65), N Phipps (W Genia 68); J Slipper (B Robinson 76), S Fainga'a (J Hanson 71), S Kepu (T Faulkner 71), S Carter (W Skelton 72), R Simmons, L Jones (J Schatz 54), M Hooper, B McCalman.

Match rating: 9/10

Man of the match: Paul O'Connell (pictured) for another immense performance in an Ireland shirt.

Referee: G Jackson (New Zealand)

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