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Despite Ireland being 1-0 down in the series, and some of the travelling Irish journalists starting to show wear and tear two-thirds into their tour, the mood of the visitors in the press box prior to the second Test was confident and expectant.
Joe Schmidt’s side didn’t let them down, working to a 26-21 win that was more convincing in execution than the closeness of the scoreboard suggests.
While set-piece execution remains ever critical, modern rugby’s key battlegrounds have become the midfield collision area and the breakdown – both of which Ireland conclusively reclaimed, after having ceded dominance to Australia in Brisbane.
For local fans wondering where the Wallabies’ aggression and physicality had disappeared to, it was actually still there, but this time masked by a well-drilled side who lifted their intensity to a higher level, who flooded players into the breakdown and attacked the ball, and who cleverly put their default kicking game on ice to deny Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty any ball to work with from the back.
Ireland started slowly, captain Peter O’Mahoney only just making it to the anthems after a nervous last-minute pit-stop. Then, only two minutes in, CJ Stander was tardy in his effort to fill a midfield space, and Bernard Foley found Kurtley Beale running a great line to the posts.
Despite the promise of more riches, this was to be the last time the Wallabies saw daylight in the Irish midfield.
Two yellow cards had a major bearing on the first half, the Wallabies momentum stunted by Marika Koroibete’s dumb lifting tackle. Despite Koroibete’s efforts to sneak to the far side of the field and blend into the crowd – possibly to chat with his parents, visiting from Fiji for the first time to see him play for the Wallabies – referee Paul Williams wasn’t being fooled, hunting down his man.
The second card was more telling – Cian Healy banished for a clumsy attempt to prevent a Wallabies try from a rolling maul, from which Williams had no hesitation in awarding a penalty try. But instead of taking command, the Wallabies were outdone in the next period, despite their numerical advantage.
The Irish lifted to be sure, but a huge tactical error from Foley compounded Australia’s woes, tapping and running a penalty, where a kick to the 22 would have set up the same lineout scenario they scored from only minutes earlier – this time with a man advantage.
The phrase ‘play what’s in front of you’ has assumed increasing popularity in Australian rugby in recent years, but in this instance, Foley’s interpretation was far too liberal.
All hell broke out immediately after the penalty try, with Ireland restarting the match with a quick kick off, a small handful of players enjoying an imaginary game while the rest of their teammates – the ones who know the laws – were strewn all over the pitch, wandering back to halfway. Fantastic, chaotic craic.
Ireland turned the screws further in the second half, continuing to avoid Folau through the excellent Jonathan Sexton kicking only to his wingers – although it must be said that the cross kick/kick pass is now in danger of becoming as overexposed as the Kardashian sisters.
Australia’s own kicking game was off, high bombs directed too far infield for a wide-ranging Folau to be able to arrive in time – even if he had managed to pick a path through the strategically placed blockers (local fans upset at the tactic might care to note Samu Kerevi doing exactly the same thing in the first half).
Both sides got value from their bench, the impressive Taniela Tupou capping another eye-catching display by burrowing over with two minutes remaining to set up a grandstand finish.
The opportunity came courtesy of a poor failure of discipline from Jack McGrath, who thought he had enough cover to get away with illegally knocking the ball from Nick Phipps’ grasp. One silly act was enough to give Australia a final shot at winning a match that – on the run of play – they had no right to.
Despite a brave effort to go the length of the field at the death, the ball spilled free from a tackle on Folau and the south stand, a sea of green, rejoiced.
Michael Cheika hit all the right notes afterwards – no excuses, too many penalties, too many soft penalties, too many 50/50 passes pushed, too slow to attacking rucks to support the ball carrier, and a lack of ‘hurt’ in the Wallabies midfield defence.
His belief is that all of that is fixable, although the loss of Will Genia and Adam Coleman will make for an uncomfortable week – as well as a troubling few weeks for Rebels coach Dave Wessels.
Typically for a winning coach, Joe Schmidt was magnanimous and good-humoured, delighted with his side’s high work-rate and ball retention, and the growing depth and competition for places within his squad.
Interestingly, Schmidt also singled out Phipps – not as some will suggest as part of a double bluff to ensure his continued selection for the Wallabies – but in recognition of his defensive efforts.
The night finished on a high where, in the bowels of AAMI Park, an initially coy Tupou made himself available for a chat that, given today’s controlled environments, was disarmingly natural, frank, and humorous.
Tupou candidly revealed how the first thing he did after scoring his first Test try was to look for his mum Oisi in the crowd, to wave to her, before he quickly realized that there was still two minutes to go to win the match, and he had to switch straight back onto the job.
The caravan now rolls on to Sydney, with Cheika transparent in identifying his core problem – how will his team be able to impose their preferred pattern of play on the third Test? If Ireland win as much ball and retain it as competently as they did in Melbourne, the Wallabies will again be reduced to disrupting and chasing the game – which is precisely how players find themselves isolated or out of position and suckered into slapping the ball down illegally, or wrongly taking out a support player without the ball.
The Wallabies looked dangerous in the opening and closing minutes of the match, controlling the ball and testing the Irish defence. But it will require a herculean 80-minute effort from the pack – and potentially some changes in personnel – to provide any such winning platform next week.
The second Test between New Zealand and France was highlighted by a bumbling display by the All Blacks that few people saw coming – most fans and pundits expecting them to kick on after their opening match – and discussion and consternation over the send-off of French fullback Benjamin Fall for making dangerous contact in the air with Beauden Barrett.
The All Blacks’ underwhelming performance shouldn’t underplay the resolve of the French, who competed manfully for the full 80 minutes. Nevertheless, there is a suspicion that some soul-searching this week about the need for better composure and situational awareness might be enough to restore the world champions’ swagger.
The Fall/Barrett matter is far easier dealt with than some of the histrionic reactions would have us believe.
Rugby needs to decide the starting point from which to approach the issue. Is it a priority to prevent matches being ‘ruined’ by cards that create an unequal contest? Or is it a priority to ensure the safety of all players, while retaining the essence of rugby as a contest for the ball?
World Rugby has already made that decision – rightly in my opinion – that it has a duty of care to players, and that in order to attract new participants (and parents) to the sport, many of whom are in emerging markets, in addition to being seen as skillful, tough and fun, rugby is demonstrably safe to play.
With respect to high, contestable kicks, there are two ways to ensure the safety of players. One is to keep all players on the ground or, if you like, to ban jumping in the air, except in lineouts. While it would be an extreme overreaction, it is not inconceivable that if players aren’t able to self-correct under current laws, that something of this nature might eventuate in the future.
The other (status quo) option is for players to challenge fairly and safely. Watch how the best catchers, whether on attack or defence – players like Folau and Ben Smith – demonstrate an innate sense of timing, knowing when they are in position to leap for the catch, or if not, instinctively knowing when to hold back and tackle the catching player as soon as he lands.
The vast majority of professional players have similarly learned to arrive early and compete/jump from a stationary position, or else err on the side of caution and stay out of the area.
Anything in between – as Fall found to his cost – represents a dangerous ‘no man’s land’, where the outcome becomes a matter of chance. In this case, Fall drew a blank, relegating his side to 14 men, but on another day Barrett might have landed safely, or perhaps even have suffered a career-ending or life-changing spinal injury. Rugby simply cannot afford to play this dangerous game of ‘fall lotto’.
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The issue has nothing to do with lack of intent or a player deserving sympathy for keeping eyes on the ball, nor is it about concerns over turning a hard man’s game soft. World Rugby, Angus Gardner and George Ayoub have this right and the vast majority of players know and understand this.
To finish by addressing a common catch-cry – it isn’t sensible laws or referees applying them that ‘ruin’ the game. If a game is ‘ruined’ by cards – a debatable point in itself – the responsibility rests with players like Fall (and Sonny-Bill Williams and Sekope Kepu last year) to play within the laws and stay on the field.
In Santa Fe the Pumas achieved their objective of playing coach Daniel Hourcade out of his position, capitulating to Wales by 30-12. None of this is to discredit the efforts of a rebuilding Welsh side, but if this meek series display is indeed a matter of ‘player power’ having its day, there will be no grace given or excuses allowed the Argentine players in the Rugby Championships.
For years now South Africa have favoured an inward pressing, umbrella-style backline defence, but with centre Lukhano Am only half committing to it, they were once again exploited on the wings by England, who raced to a 12-0 lead.
The rest of the match was mostly the ‘Thor’ show, Duane Vermeulen seeing off the unfortunate Billy Vunipola by half-time, then upping the ante even more in the second half, a decisive 23-12 win sealing the series win.
Where Eddie Jones goes from here will be fascinating to see. The knives are out in Fleet Street, his once-mighty pack is disintegrating before his eyes and his players are running away from interviews – Ben Youngs, unusually for a halfback, proving to be a man of few words.
There is a growing sense that the clock is ticking on Eddie and there is little time for England to identify and implant new talent who will be ready to win a World Cup in 17 months’ time.