Ireland have won the Lansdowne Cup with a heartstopping 20-16 win over Australia in the series-deciding third rugby Test in Sydney.
A ground-record 44,085 fans packed into Allianz Stadium on Saturday night to see the reigning European champions hold off the Wallabies in a gripping series finale laced with drama and controversy.
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Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was visibly furious throughout the match, as French referee Pascal Gauzere made a series of bewildering decisions against the home side, allowing Jonny Sexton to ultimately boot the Irish to a famous victory through five penalty goals.
Flanker and man of the match CJ Stander scored Ireland’s only try in the 45th minute, before winger Marika Koroibete replied with Australia’s lone five-pointer shortly after to cut the visitors’ lead to a point and set up a grandstand finish.
A late Sexton penalty goal gave the visitors a touch more breathing space but there were hearts in the mouths of every men in green right up until the fulltime whistle. The television match official (TMO) agonised over a possible intervention in Australia’s favour in the final minute.
After several minutes, the TMO eventually decided there was inconclusive evidence to penalise winger Jacob Stockdale for a deliberate knockdown that would have given the Wallabies one last attacking chance in front of the posts.
Ireland’s victory, a week after they levelled the series in Melbourne with their first Test win in Australia in 39 years, consolidated their world No.2 ranking and denied the Wallabies a first three-Test series win since beating the British and Irish Lions in 2002.
Both sides played most of the match without their captains and inspirational No.7s after Michael Hooper suffered a hamstring injury in the 16th minute and Irish flanker Peter O’Mahony was concussed on the half-hour mark.
There was drama even before kickoff, with the Irish team’s arrival at the ground delayed by half-an-hour after being caught in traffic.
Coach Joe Schmidt was livid.
His mood might have lightened after an early Sexton penalty goal gave his side a 3-0 start.
With Kurtley Beale controlling field position with clever tactical kicking and David Pocock dominant at the breakdown, the Wallabies nudged ahead 6-3 with two penalties to Bernard Foley.
But the home team suffered a huge blow when Hooper limped off and momentum – and the weight of possession and territory – shifted Ireland’s way almost immediately.
Despite being a man down after Stockdale was yellow-carded for an elbow to Nick Phipps’ throat, Ireland regained the lead after two more Sexton penalties before the Wallabies had Israel Folau contentiously sent to the sin bin.
The TMO deemed Folau had unnecessarily “placed” his hand on O’Mahony during an aerial challenge, resulting in the Ireland captain landing awkwardly on his head – and having to be taken off on a medicab.
Ireland carried a 12-9 lead into the break via a fourth Sexton penalty after the halftime siren had sounded. Stander’s try left the Wallabies desperately chasing the game over the last half hour.
“Some things didn’t go for us. You need a few things to go for you in a game,” said a shattered Cheika.
“It could have gone either way. It was pretty tight. I really feel for our supporters who came out here tonight.
“It was an electric atmosphere and I promise you we’ll be back for the next (Bledisloe Cup) series against New Zealand in better shape and we’ll be trying our best to make them proud.”