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Well, it’s not like we’ve never seen this kind of week-to-week disconnection from the Wallabies before.
Brilliant one week, underwhelming and well-beaten the next. And to be fair, underwhelming and well-beaten one week, and brilliant the next, too.
The 26-21 loss in the Second Test in Melbourne confirmed that the series will be decided in Sydney, and that as we long suspected, Ireland’s first XV is a very, very good outfit.
The way the Irish were able to control possession and where the game was played was something to behold. We all expected Johnny Sexton to be prominent – ‘the maestro’ as Michael Cheika referred to him after his recall last week – and he turned out the sort of performance that rightly has him recognised among the very best international playmakers in the game.
His kicking was superb – one hooked penalty aside – and Ireland clearly learned their lessons from the Brisbane loss by kicking to the parts of the ground were Israel Folau wasn’t, thus rendering him generally ineffective for large portions of the game. Once they removed the broken field attacking threat of the Wallabies fullback, they worked on hemming the Australians into their own half and then robbed them of the ball to boot.
By halftime, the Wallabies had seen only 31 per cent of possession, and had played nearly three quarters of the half on their side of halfway. Nearing the hour mark of the game, the possession figure hovered dangerously close to single digits, before the Wallabies finally held enough ball in the closing quarter of the match to finish with 40 per cent of possession and 37 per cent of territory.
The obvious retort to those numbers would be that ‘the Wallabies just couldn’t get enough ball to do anything’, but that retort would be quickly debunked by just a cursory glance at the numbers in the 18-9 win in Brisbane.
The Wallabies won that match with 40 per cent of possession and 39 per cent of territory, and even attempted half a dozen more tackles.
So it’s not that they didn’t have enough ball; indeed, they’ve scored more tries than Ireland with the same minority share of possession in both games.
It’s that this time around, what they tried to do with the ball wasn’t good enough. Effectively, they could only do as much with the ball as Ireland allowed them.
And that’s an important distinction to make. Teams can often be outplayed, often just comprehensively thumped. Other times, they can fire plenty of shots and even ask plenty of question of defences, only to come up short.
In Melbourne, I think the Wallabies were rather flattered by the 26-21 scoreline, but I don’t really think they played particularly poorly. I didn’t really think Ireland were terrible in Brisbane, either, for what it’s worth.
There’s no doubt the Wallabies’ decision-making let them down at times, though. Twice they went with quick tap options in lieu of a set piece with an Ireland prop on the naughty chair, for example, and though the second time around they would get away with it through Taniela Tupou barging over after ten phases, they very nearly brought it all undone with a loose pass behind a player after two.
But the Wallabies’ scramble defence was also really good once again, and that was probably the difference between the score being as close as it was or as reflective of Ireland’s – and Sexton’s – game management as it should have been.
Ultimately, they weren’t good enough. And that smarts, particularly after last week’s display. But such is the modern game, with it’s fickle form and general closeness of the next four or five teams trying to edge closer to New Zealand – who might even be edging back to the pack, themselves.
The Wallabies were beaten by the better side on the night, just as Ireland were the week before. And as Ireland showed this weekend, there’s no shame in that if you take in the lessons of the loss.
There will be ‘work-ons’ for Sydney throughout the Melbourne defeat, but the Wallabies’ late-game desperation perfectly illustrated their night.
After somehow clawing their way back to within four points, they fielded Ireland’s deep restart and worked their way off their own try line, before finding that the room was out in the wider channels. They found their way out of their 22 down the right edge, and then crossed the halfway line down the left.
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The Wallabies reset up the middle though another strong Tupou carry, before going to the right edge again through the mostly-contained Folau, but just slightly missed the cleanout and lost the ball in the resulting ruck.
When they wanted it, the Wallabies were able to find room that Ireland let them have.
But when they needed their accuracy and composure the most to take advantage, they lost it in the face of Irish pressure at the breakdown.