Shock result? No, Ireland were the better team
It’s time to face the facts. Australia didn’t manage to lose their game against Ireland. They were simply beaten by a better team. And all the crying into Australian beer won’t change that simple fact.
The review of Australia’s performance following Saturday night’s match has been full of what went wrong for Australia, the lack of performance from players, the absence of clear thinking under pressure, the inability at scrum time to control matters, the absence of Pocock and Moore.
Much of the analysis points to deficits that were a one-off set of circumstances, an occasion when the otherwise mediocre, mad Irish pulled off an unlikely victory. It was a perfect storm – never to be repeated.
The underlying implication was that if Australia were to play Ireland again next week with the same line-ups, the result would be markedly different.
That would be a mistake.
Adam Freier had the most honest appraisal of the match – “Suck it up, we were outplayed and outsmarted” ran his headline. Except as you got into the detail of it, he focused largely on what the Wallabies did wrong, rather than acknowledge what Ireland did right and executed positively.
Reflecting on the outcome, criticism from a number of quarters is couched in classic avoidance language with reasons trotted out by commentators that are as predictable as much as they are limited.
First up – northern-hemisphere style conditions was set as the context for the game – as if it had never rained in New Zealand before Saturday night. Had the Wallabies watched how Ireland underperformed in the rain against USA?
Of course, the Irish gameplan was classic Northern-Hemisphere style negative rugby – as if Australia had never played against a side that sought to dominate at scrum and breakdown time and kicked penalties to win when defences were too good – on either side – to get anything else.
Ireland slowed the ball down and prevented Australia getting the ball to their backline and what they did get was slow and on the back foot. As if Australia had never encountered this context before when playing New Zealand or South Africa, let alone a Six Nations team.
If only we’d been allowed to play positive rugby goes the deluded thinking.
Then there’s talk of a ref who penalised them unfairly at scrum time, and that but for a couple of calls, Australia would and should have won it.
In reality, bar one brief period when Australia were hammering the Irish line, they failed to get past a defence that had conceded just three legitimate tries in the whole of the Six Nations championship.
Instead, despite all the wise warnings from some within the Wallaby camp, Ireland’s warm-up form was used as a metric to place them firmly into the ‘valiant also-ran’ category.
The mix-and-match Irish teams that played and lost against Scotland, France and England while conceding six tries set the expectation. The USA pool match was viewed equally risibly.
There were a lot of Australian players standing around after the match with a dazed look on their faces, particularly James Horwill, the recently-installed Wallaby captain. Next to him stood his predecessor, Rocky Elsom, whose face told a completely different story – one that began with “I told you so.”
Publicly, and no doubt privately on the training field and in the dressing room, Elsom had been warning about the dangers inherent in the Irish team.
Not just in their ability to fire up for the big occasion, but also because they have some world-class players, beyond the fading and injured Brian O’Driscoll. And – whisper it – some of those players were possibly better than their Wallaby counterparts.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Elsom’s own department of the backrow. Even before Pocock had suffered an injury prior to the game, Elsom was talking publicly about the calibre of the players he had played with and against in Ireland – and how underrated they were.
The absence of Pocock was no doubt keenly felt, yet the Wallabies knew that Ireland hadn’t been able to travel with their primary specialist opensider, David Wallace.
Unlike Australia, Ireland had another 7 specialist in their squad, Shane Jennings of Leinster, yet Kidney had selected a blindsider instead to fill the position – Sean O’Brien – the European Player of the Year in 2010/11.
What may not be recognised by non-Irish commentators and fans was that if David Wallace had been able to travel and play yesterday, O’Brien would likely have been on the bench, because Stephen Ferris is regarded as even better now that he’s recovered from injury.
Alongside both of them was Jamie Heaslip, the Irish Lion No 8, nominated as IRB Player of the Year in 2009, and with a Grand Slam and two Heineken Cups under his belt.
McCalman, Elsom and Samo/Palu just didn’t and don’t match-up – any day of the week.
In the second row, Horwill and Vickerman, were up against O’Connell and O’Callaghan. The most telling assessment of this comparison was to simply look at what Australia did for most of their lineouts yesterday.
First they avoided them whenever possible, and when they did, they invariably threw to the front. Polata-Nau just made it a lottery, and his erratic throwing was well known in advance.
The front row was Healy, Best, and Ross versus Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Alexander. It wasn’t exactly a state secret that Ireland’s scrum had improved – who could have missed it.
The emergence of Ross and Healy as a propping partnership for Leinster and Ireland had done wonders for their respective teams. Healy, in particular, had tormented pack play and was a choke-tackle specialist at test level.
Horwill was quoted as saying: “With the maul, Ireland used the philosophy of getting on the ball and using the laws to their advantage. When it’s called a maul, once it collapses the defensive team gets the feed in the scrum.”
If this quote is accurate, then the Wallaby captain failed to understand a key Irish tactic and the actual law in question. There was no driving maul. The Australian player was tackled, held up (‘choked’) by two Irish players and prevented from going to ground or moving forward.
As other Australian players gathered in the tackle, it became a maul, and as Ireland had successfully argued with the use of their tactic twelve months ago with the IRB referees panel, if the ball doesn’t emerge, then a scrum must be called and the put-in awarded to the defending team.
It doesn’t require the maul to collapse, just the passage of sufficient time and the lack of movement forward. Australia should have picked up on this as Irish players were consistently saying to the ref “It’s a maul” while the players were on their feet.
Behind the scrum, Australia should have had an advantage with their half-back combination. Except, as had been flagged well in advance, stop Genia, and you halt the whole Wallaby backline.
Genia simply hadn’t reckoned on how good the Irish backrow was until he found himself being picked up by Ferris, carried back 10 metres and dumped unceremoniously.
Cooper was transfixed. The level of indecision on his face when he got the ball and had Ferris and O’Brien tearing at him was palpable.
Out wide, the record-breaking partnership of O’Driscoll and Darcy was hardly troubled when in fact it was the one clear weak spot in the Irish defence. McCabe and Fainga’a are just not in the same class and barely troubled the injured O’Driscoll and out of form Darcy.
In O’Connor, Beale and Ashley-Cooper lay Australia’s best hopes of gaining advantage and getting across the try-line. Kearney, Bowe and Earls all had question marks about their form coming into the match.
Kearney ended up matching his counterpart, and Bowe and Earls were lively enough. Except for the fact that he was taking the place-kicks, you wondered if O’Connor was even on the pitch, he was so invisible, except for his chase down of Bowe.
This was no 10-man victory for a negative team. Ireland played a 15-man game with the same intensity, commitment and pace as Australia were used to playing. And Ireland were able to mix and match their attacking play to be more adventurous when it suited.
One moment in the second half captured that. About 60 minutes in, with Ireland in the lead, they were defending resolutely on their five-metre line on their put-in. The scrum held firm, and instead of the ball going back to O’Gara to fire to safety of touch, Heaslip picked and ran inside his own 22.
The ball fired left out the backline, and Australia first line of defence was caught napping, as Bowe streaked in open space down the wing and kicked ahead.
An unlucky ricochet off the covering Beale’s legs prevented a certain try. But Ireland had a lineout on the halfway line. A positive outcome to a piece of positive play. Just one of many in what was a fascinating game.
One which, in the end, Ireland won, for no other reason than because they were the better team.
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