It is one of the most iconic golf holes in the world – the 17th at the Sawgrass Country Club, the regular venue for the Tournament Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Florida.
The 17th is an island green, a tiny emerald peninsula protected by a deep-blue lake on all sides. Although it is barely 130 yards from tee to green and only requires a pitching wedge from the pros, it represents the ultimate in sporting treachery.
Without a fairway, there are only three places you can land a golf ball – in the small bunker at the front of the green, on the super-slick surface itself, or in the water. More than 120,000 balls are recovered from the lake by divers every year.
Jack Nicklaus has said that the hole is typical of the entire course: “I’ve never been very good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car.”
Back in 1999, Fred Couples dropped his first tee shot into the drink, then knocked the second into the cup for an unlikely par.
As if that wasn’t enough, one year before Couples’ three, Brad Fabel had landed his ball successfully on the green only to watch it promptly carried off by a seagull and dropped into the lake – “another hazard to add to the perils of the 17th” was the wry footnote appended by one TV analyst.
In such unforgiving conditions, assessing the wind conditions and selecting the right club is all important. In Brisbane on Saturday evening, there can be little doubt that Joe Schmidt under-clubbed, while Michael Cheika got his own preparation spot on.
In the absence of six of Leinster’s champion players in the starting line-up, Ireland were sluggish and Johnny Sexton’s replacement, Joey Carbery, endured a difficult evening at number 10.
By way of contrast, Cheika’s selections (with the possible exception of Izack Rodda in the second row) all paid off handsomely. He judged the wind, and the speed of the green just right.
Australia had to prepare accurately in the areas I highlighted in this article a couple of weeks ago. Above all, they had to challenge in the air and disrupt Ireland on the ground.
The single most impressive feature of the performance was the Wallabies’ dominance of the high kicking game. It began right from the opening kick-off:
Ireland started by trying to run their own aerial specialist, Rob Kearney, straight at Israel Folau, in a modern reinterpretation of the medieval joust between champion knights. Although he was temporarily knocked off his horse, Folau dusted himself down and won this contest conclusively, with the added bonus of a penalty for interference in the air.
When Ireland repeated the tactic from the next restart, in the fourth minute, Folau won again; at the next attempt, in the 36th minute, Carbery chipped the ball tamely to the Wallaby fullback without any challenge at all. It was somehow symbolic.
By that stage, Folau had well and truly proved his point. Australia defused Ireland’s box-kicks off Conor Murray with their backfield duo of Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty:
They also targetted Ireland at one of their strongest points, off kicks launched by Will Genia and Kurtley Beale:
A second penalty was earned (and goaled) by Folau’s challenge on Kearney, with Bundee Aki picking up the pieces from an offside position.
Kearney has been one of the bulwarks of the Leinster side this season, but the sound of his deteriorating confidence was almost audible:
Another error of judgement under a high kick led to the Wallabies’ first try of the match:
Genia punted high, the threat of Folau caused the misjudgement, and David Pocock took advantage. Three phases later, the Wallabies moved the ball across to the other side of the field to score the try at 0:37 on the highlight reel.
The dominant Aussie kicking game was also the key to their second try, in the 71st minute:
Once again, Folau won the high cross-field kick over the left side of the backfield defence – this time, wing Jacob Stockdale was the victim. After the initial breach, Genia cleverly ramped up the pressure with a second kick over the top into an empty backfield:
The counter-ruck by Michael Hooper and Folau squeezed a penalty out of Jacob Stockdale, setting the position for Pocock’s match-winning try at 3:00 on the reel.
The second area in which Australia needed to prove their competitiveness was the defensive breakdown. Although Ireland enjoyed about 60 per cent of territory and possession, and built 130 rucks, they did it at a 94 per cent success rate – three or four percentage points below their typical retention rate.
It was probably a sign of the importance Cheika attached to this area in preparation that Australia finished the game with no less than four big on-ballers on the field – Pocock, Hooper and replacement forwards Pete Samu and Tolu Latu.
Key to the challenge was the presence of Pocock, back from sabbatical and ready for action. The game contained three signature turnovers from the best jackal in the world:
This first example gave Ireland early warning that if they couldn’t remove Pocock’s base (his legs), there was little chance of taking him on purely for upper body strength.
The second example proved it.
Poor Carbery had the unenviable task of trying to remove Pocock one-on-one in the upper body. There can be only one winner in that contest!
The third turnover was engineered (as they so often have been for the Wallabies in recent times) by a Hooper tackle:
A Pocock-led counter-ruck on Aki led to the Folau ‘try’ (at 1:30 on the highlight reel) which was subsequently hauled back for Adam Coleman’s tackle without the ball on Iain Henderson:
One try scored, three clean breakdown turnovers and a fourth engineering a try that probably should have been allowed – a man of the match performance, right?
In fact, matters are far less clear-cut. There was a subtle spectre hanging over Pocock’s performance which also casts a shadow over Australia’s prospects of winning the series as a whole.
The four turnovers were partially balanced by two penalties given up on the deck, when Pocock failed to support his own bodyweight for at least a part of the jackaling process:
When Ireland were able to handle Pocock at the cleanout efficiently, they tended to find space to attack in the line immediately on the following play:
Here ‘Poey’ was cleaned out quickly, and CJ Stander promptly found a nice seam between Beale and Bernard Foley to exploit on the next phase. Stander really should have crowned that break by putting the ball down over the goal-line.
Ireland might have scored another try when Murray broke directly around Pocock’s side of the scrum, but again the men in green failed to find a finish:
On a broader canvas, the Australian lineout without Rob Simmons looked jittery to the point of being neurotic, giving up three turnovers directly and a further three spoiled balls, one of which was converted to a turnover on the next phase.
Having Latu, Pocock, Hooper and Samu all on the field together in the last quarter may pay off on the deck, but it could backfire up top in the remaining two Tests.
Michael Cheika looked into his bag and got his club selection right on the 17th at Brisbane to go one-up in matchplay against Joe Schmidt.
Australia dominated the airwaves through Israel Folau, ably assisted by Dane Haylett-Petty, and their kicking game ended up well in profit.
They also managed to disrupt enough ball on the ground to apply a measure of brake on Ireland’s domination of territory and possession, and create some turnover ball with which to attack.
But in truth, that success is balanced on a knife edge, and the ball is well capable of sliding off the green and back into the water.
Schmidt under-clubbed in the first round, he is unlikely to do so in the second. He has the tools in his bag to improve selection considerably, with Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose reuniting in an all-Leinster midfield, the entire starting Leinster front row available, and Dan Leavy and Tadhg Beirne potentially in the back five.
Even David Pocock’s performance demonstrated the fine margins of success – four turnovers, a try and one try-assist balanced by two breakdown penalties and two clear try-scoring chances given up. The Wallaby lineout failures have to be weighed against their breakdown gains.
Ireland have every chance of winning the 18th and forcing the series to a sudden-death decider.
One thing is certain – this series is only going to get tighter, and fingernails will be bitten down to the bone by its end.