Sunday, November 27, 2016


 Ireland completed a hat-trick over the big three of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in this calendar year. Remarkable stuff.
Ask the average Aussie his impression of November internationals in Dublin and chances are rain and cold will feature in the first sentence. Not this time. It was a perfect setting for rugby: still and mild and yet another full house in a stadium that is sold out for Ireland's games until the end of the season.


And the quality of the contest was first class. For the first 39 minutes Ireland were as close to optimum performance as was reasonable to expect from a side minus O'Brien, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw. When coaches talk about injuries being an opportunity for others they dream of stuff like this. Josh van der Flier was man of the match, and Garry Ringrose had a tremendous game.

Perhaps the best bit for Joe Schmidt was that his side looked beaten in the third quarter, by which stage their backline had been hastily rearranged and the fuel tank looked perilously low. At that point there was a clinical look to the Aussies who made light of the fact that they've been bouncing around departure lounges since August. This was their 14th test since early June. Perhaps that's why, from the outset, Ireland passed up shots on goal in favour of going to touch and forcing their opponents to defend without rest.

Three times in the opening 12 minutes they chose the corner instead of the sticks. By the time we got to the hour mark, however, they looked like they would gladly settle for a shot on goal. The alarm had been set with a lovely set-piece try for Dane Haylett-Petty just before the break, giving the Aussies a sniff at 7-17, and then they set about an Irish side who came out for the second half with a makeshift backline. At that point, with Bernard Foley launching forwards down the middle before hurting Ireland out wide, you could only see an away win.

And yet Ireland, as they had done in Chicago three weeks ago, rallied with a try when they needed it most. When Keith Earls got over in the corner on 66 minutes, to put his side 27-24 ahead, we didn't think it would be the last score.
You could feel the tension as both sides put bodies on the line trying to change that picture.
For Ireland it was an appealing vista for almost all of the first half. The binning of Dean Mumm for tipping Tadhg Furlong when cleaning him out was crucial.
Ireland took immediate advantage, going to touch, mauling for 30 metres and then shifting wide where a lovely little combination between Earls and Iain Henderson saw the lock get over from 20 metres. Jackson's conversion put the home team 10-0 in front.

By the half-hour mark Michael Cheika lad lots to worry about: the scoreline, the penalty count (1-6 in Ireland's favour; it would be 3-13 by the finish); and two choke tackles conceded, which killed their momentum. The scrum was also beginning to lean in favour of Ireland.

Constantly Ireland were looking to get the ball out the back and motor down the wide channel. Mostly this involved Andrew Trimble, who for all his qualities lacks the gas to scare opponents at this level. He hobbled off on 31 minutes which meant Joey Carbery slotted in at full back with Zebo shifting to the wing.

Even when things went wrong for Ireland they went right. When they put their fourth kickable penalty to touch, and botched the line-out, Ringrose managed to scoop up the loose ball that followed and with a great finish evade Mumm to touchdown, the conversion made it 17-0.

Had it stayed that way until the break it would have completed as good a 40 minutes as Ireland have produced, anywhere, anytime. The gloss was taken off it, however, in the 40th minute when a horrible kick from Jackson gave the Wallabies a decent platform 40 metres out, and from there they produced a lovely set-piece move to put Haylett-Petty over by the posts. A scoreline of 17-7 had an altogether different feel to it.

And that was exacerbated by the non-appearance after the break of Jared Payne. The rearranged backline now featured scrum-half Kieran Marmion on the wing and Keith Earls at centre. Marmion did well to interrupt a certain looking try for Henry Speight a couple of minutes into the second half, but a few minutes later the Wallabies were over in the same spot through Tevita Kuridrani. And with Bernard Foley's conversion, a three-point game.

Jackson pulled three back for Ireland but on 57 minutes Foley was standing over another conversion, this time replacement Stefania Naivalu scored out wide within a minute of coming on. And with that the Aussies were a point ahead. He made it four with a penalty on the hour mark.

It didn't stay that way. When they needed it most Ireland managed that lovely try for Earls on 66 minutes, and Jackson goaled to put his team 27-24 in front. Remarkable it stayed that way until the finish, an appropriate tribute to captain Rory Best on his 100th cap. The hooker has rarely been better.

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