| 14.3°C Dublin

Analysis: What a difference year makes as Ireland sit pretty

Close

Ireland and Paul O'Connell have come a long way since their defeat to Australia at the Aviva Stadium last year. Photo: John Dickson / SPORTSFILE

Ireland and Paul O'Connell have come a long way since their defeat to Australia at the Aviva Stadium last year. Photo: John Dickson / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Israel Folau, Australia, escapes the tackle of Brian O'Driscoll

Israel Folau, Australia, escapes the tackle of Brian O'Driscoll

SPORTSFILE

Nick Cummins (L) in action against Tommy Bowe on Saturday will be one of the players not in action against Scotland

Nick Cummins (L) in action against Tommy Bowe on Saturday will be one of the players not in action against Scotland

REUTERS

/

Ireland and Paul O'Connell have come a long way since their defeat to Australia at the Aviva Stadium last year. Photo: John Dickson / SPORTSFILE

Perhaps we should have foreseen what was to come when the news broke that members of the Australian team had hit the town during the build-up.

But a year ago, it just didn't feel like the teams who had just crossed paths at the Aviva Stadium were on very different trajectories and that, when the Wallabies returned to Dublin a year later, they'd be looking up at Ireland on the world rankings table.

Joe Schmidt cut a somewhat shell-shocked figure in the media room after watching his side concede four tries to nil and he made a plea for patience. Alongside him, Paul O'Connell spoke about how the non-Leinster players were struggling to get to grips with the gameplan and had failed to reach the intensity needed.

In contrast to the frustrated Irish camp, the Wallabies were jubilant. Ewen McKenzie, who had addressed his team-talk on the pitch, looked a genius and their team seemed to be on the right track.

Over the course of the 367 days that have followed, the world as we knew it was turned on its head. The Wallabies arrived into Dublin on Sunday with Michael Cheika at the helm and on a mission to restore faith in a damaged brand. The Ireland team they defeated 32-15 that day are Six Nations champions and the third best team in the world. At no time since November 16 last year, have they been anywhere near as poor.

"I think it surprised everyone the way we played," Brian O'Driscoll said in the days after that loss. "It surprised us, it surprised the public and I would imagine it surprised Joe. We were poor and that level isn't acceptable and we all know that and I think if we play anything like that against the All-Blacks there is the potential for a cricket score."

Lingered

The Australia defeat has lingered in the Irish consciousness because it was the one day things have gone really wrong under the New Zealander who has lost just three times as national team coach.

The other defeats were one-score affairs against England and New Zealand and both came down to the final moments, whereas the Wallabies kicked for home early and Ireland could only watch them go.

When the coaching team got back to the cold, hard light of the video review room, they found the footage less harrowing then they'd imagined.

The mistakes that allowed Nick Cummins, Quade Cooper and Michael Hooper over the line had been individual rather than systemic and the improvements needed for the visit of the All Blacks weren't as drastic as many pundits feared.

O'Connell resolved to make sure detail never trumped intensity again, last week recalling, "It was very different last season for me with Munster and for the Connacht, Ulster guys, it is different to anything you are used to but once you to get used to it, it is easier to figure out what do.

"There is a lot of detail to take in and you try to get that done earlier in the week to try put yourself in a position to focus on, I suppose, the simpler elements of rugby and that could count for a lot."

It was subsequently revealed that the main focus of the month's work had been centred on New Zealand. Australia had fallen through the cracks.

"The performance, as I've always contended, was a little bit better than the result, but the four tries they scored were really disappointing and you just can't do that in the fine margins that exists in Test match footy," the coach recalled.

"As soon as you slip a margin, then you are chasing and if you don't chase well enough you will soon slip another one and they will keep going forward because they have the sort of personnel that are capable of doing that."

Since that day, Ireland have played 10 times and won eight. Australia, meanwhile, have won eight from 14 and drawn once.

Considering the calibre of the opposition, it is not a shabby return but it was combined with off-pitch wranglings that left the Australian head coach red faced and out of a job.

Now, Cheika is in the position Schmidt was last year as he learns on the job. The challenge for a new coach is to introduce his own way of doing things while checking out the talent available.

Early on, it can be hard to strike a balance.

"Michael Cheika has had a pretty major influence on a lot of the players because he had a number of them (at the Waratahs)," Schmidt said.

"Especially the key playmakers. You know it was a little bit like that for me, I knew a lot of the players and for me it was disappointing result against Australia.

"I think his team at the Wallabies and the Waratahs are a lot different. I saw a fair bit of Cheiks at Stade Francais as well when I was with Leinster.

"One of the things Cheiks does really well is he gets them to work and he gets them to work collectively. That's part of what I alluded to inside with their defensive work.

"He almost builds that real collective effort as part of his culture in a team and it is a real strength for him. It's a strength for the teams that he coaches."

If Ireland were looking for re-assurance about their own feelings on last year's game, they could just ask the Wallabies.

Quade Cooper pulled the strings for McKenzie with a fine display of passing and threw in a sublime try to boot, fooling Ian Madigan and Luke Marshall with a shimmy before coasting over the line.

"Ireland didn't play bad at all last year," he reflected yesterday. "I think we played very well. I think this year they're going to be hungry to put in a better performance - as are we."

This week, Ireland have the benefit of a year under Schmidt's tutelage.

Against South Africa, the coach's stamp was apparent in every detail and the reality that the team had knocked over one of the world's best sides and had so much room to improve was reason enough to be cheerful.

Unlike last season, the Six Nations champions have an understanding and cohesion that comes from working together. They also have had time to focus on their opponents.

Last weekend, they were able to rest most of the starting XV while the Wallabies threw everything at France in a bruising encounter in Paris.

Both coaches will make changes, but as Schmidt returns his biggest hitters, his opposite number will be taking some tired bodies out of the firing line.

What hasn't changed, however, are the talents the Wallabies possess.

They still have wondrous hands and willing, talented runners. Their off-loading game puts Ireland's in the shade, while their defence is aggressive. They have fallen behind Ireland in the world rankings, but despite not playing brilliantly they were one score away from New Zealand and France and beat Wales.

Ireland will need to be creative in order to find a way to avoid a repeat of last year. Over the ensuing 12 months they have become a more confident, slicker outfit able and willing to beat the elite teams, but despite Australia's struggles, they'll need to be at their best.

Irish Independent