Monday 24 April 2017

Neil Francis: Astonishing physical resilience puts Ireland in unenviable position of being Six Nations favourites

Ireland now favourites for Six Nations after another heroic display of courage and discipline

The Ireland pack drive a maul forward. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The Ireland pack drive a maul forward. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A simply marvellous game of rugby. A Test match that crackled and sparkled with wondrous skill. There was niggle and aggression - but nothing like what we saw last week - and a match where Ireland looked like they would lose it heavily in the second half.

That uncertainty: how much did they have left in the tank after a series that questioned their physical and mental stamina to the core? Test matches normally have a beginning, a middle and an end, and this one did, but not necessarily in that order.

This was a good Australian side and it would take an awful lot to beat them; when they got in to their natural game in the second half you feared for Ireland because it looked for the entire world that the wheels were going to fall off.

I watched the Australians in the pre-match going through their passing drills. You could never underestimate the power of simplicity, and the quality of their passing I felt could undo Ireland whenever the Wallabies got their pack to win a bit of ball from them.

That was the issue for Australia: Ireland's marvellously competitive pack fear nobody at this stage; they have been more than a match for all comers, and in the first half yesterday they simply did not give Australia a sniff of the ball, and Tevita Kuridrani, Israel Folau and Co spent the whole first 40 minutes chasing the ball.

Ireland's ability to play keep-ball and not make mistakes frustrates the hell out of their opposition. The key to it is to have amazing reserves of stamina, and Ireland are undoubtedly one of the fittest sides in world rugby: it is why they have lived with the All Blacks and beaten Australia and South Africa as well this year.

Once again their back row reigned supreme against a more fabled yet out-played duo of David Pocock and Michael Hooper. Again at the breakdown it was Ireland who were able to dictate, with Josh van der Flier, I suppose in the van.

The key for this whole series might need an enquiry on how we are refereed: have we got the most lenient referees we have ever had or is Ireland's discipline that good?

Only three penalties conceded yesterday and four in both games against the All Blacks; that is a phenomenal performance in terms of exercising control and patience in every sector of the game.

Rugby is a simple game: you win the ball, you apply pressure and your opponents either concede ground, penalties or tries. Ireland were under the cosh for 30 minutes of the second half yet they conceded only two penalties during this period.

Michael Cheika might challenge the penalty count in the aftermath of a spoiled Grand Slam but Grumpy will find that Ireland's rigidity under pressure was a supreme exercise in mental strength.

It is the non-concession of penalties and their superior fitness that has allowed them to take the jump to the next level. It must be very gratifying for the team to be that sure of themselves.

One other thing that has stood in Ireland's favour is their ability to overcome adversity when it comes to injury. Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw are always going to be a huge loss. Losing somebody of Sean O'Brien's quality in the morning always throws a curve-ball not only to Ireland but also to the Australians, who would have to change their tactics accordingly.

Quite often a player who comes in unexpectedly plays a blinder and Van der Flier's astonishing performance yesterday came into that category.

Ireland knew all of this before a ball was kicked yesterday but what happened and the way that the team coped with all of the injuries it had, that was a different matter. Their ability to think on their feet again is a sign of maturity. Improvidus, apto quod victum. Improvise, adapt and overcome.

It was a big call to keep Garry Ringrose at inside-centre. When Jared Payne went off, you felt that Ireland would not survive defensively; whatever else about Payne's undoubted quality, he is their team leader in defence and his defensive reading has been first class in that most difficult position at outside-centre.

Rob Kearney's HIA was a simple like-for-like substitution, with Simon Zebo coming on. When Andrew Trimble got injured, it was obvious he was not right; Kieran Marmion came onto the wing and Australia targeted him immediately but apart from Henry Speight's try they didn't get too much change out of him.

When Payne went off at half-time, Joey Carbery went at full back, Keith Earls into the centre and Zebo on to the wing.

For Ireland's three-quarters to survive as they did was down to a huge amount of luck and incredibly some sloppy Australian passing, when the vicitors could have torn Ireland apart. The Aussies messed up three fairly certain try-scoring opportunities with forward passes and some dropped ball: something that you would not expect from a side coached by Stephen Larkham, unquestionably the finest passer of a ball at Test level ever.

Australia came second up front and that was the real winning and losing of this game. Iain Henderson is still a good bit off where he needs to be from a fitness perspective, but he crowned an edgy but very efficient performance with a fantastic try, sweeping up nicely to pick up an Earls inside off-load and out-pace Will Genia.

Ireland's maul was too tight, too low and too well organised for the Aussies to halt. In the battle of inches they always got a few more at scrum time and more than a couple at maul time.

Credit must go also to Paddy Jackson, whose passing was superb; he took the ball a little bit closer to the gain-line, took on the defence himself when it needed to be done and managed Ireland brilliantly in times of crisis.

This is a significant victory. The nation could easily have explained that the team were tired from last week's loss which had taken so much out of them but again they rose to the challenge, evidence yet again that they have moved on another level.

We await the Six Nations Championship in the unenviable position of being favourites. Congratulations to all.

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