Sunday 20 May 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: We're blessed to have this brave group

Ability to turn around Aussies in full flow fits with a hallmark of this side: edging close games

Tadhg Furlong is tackled by Australia’s Reece Hodge and Dean Mumm. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong is tackled by Australia’s Reece Hodge and Dean Mumm. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Call me blasphemous but I reckon this was right up there with Chicago. Decades from now people will ask those of us who witnessed it what the Joe Schmidt era was like. And the quality that will probably spring to mind first is the ability to win close games, ones which seemed set to slip away from Ireland but were wrestled back by a combination of discipline, intelligence and sheer bloody-mindedness.

The deciding game in Paris in 2014 is perhaps the classic example of this. Or at least it was until yesterday afternoon when the Irish team dug deep, deep within themselves to finish this most remarkable set of late-season internationals on a winning note.

Of course beating Australia wasn't as unexpected as beating the All Blacks. But beating them having played the entire second half with a back-line which had Joey Carbery at full-back, Kieran Marmion and Simon Zebo on the wing, Garry Ringrose and Keith Earls in the centre and Paddy Jackson at out-half? Even the most fervent alickadoo in the land couldn't have predicted a configuration like that.

When the visitors moved up a gear and ran rings round the depleted Irish to move 24-20 by the end of the third quarter, a 21-point turnabout in 22 minutes of playing time, only one result looked likely. Just as only one result looked likely when the All Blacks closed to within striking distance at about the same time in Chicago. But once more Ireland made nonsense of the idea that momentum is all.

When they were awarded a penalty in the 64th minute you expected Paddy Jackson to opt for a kick at goal, narrowing the gap and just as importantly giving a breather to an Irish team who at that moment seemed to be running on empty. Instead he kicked for the corner and in a breathtaking passage of play, Ireland smashed the Australians back repeatedly to make the space for Simon Zebo to put Keith Earls in at the left corner with a perfectly timed pass.

There remained 16 long minutes for Ireland to hold out, but hold out they did. And it says so much about the mend-and-make-do nature of the performance of a team even more reduced by injuries than they had been during the World Cup defeat by Argentina that the final crucial moment involved a turnover by Peter O'Mahony. O'Mahony had entered this weekend expecting to line out for Munster against Treviso but was drafted into the squad when Sean O'Brien became the latest to join the injury list.

Brought on when Ireland looked to be on the ropes and reeling, he was immense as were his fellow replacements Ultan Dillane and Cian Healy. If they did not exactly turn the tide, they enabled the Irish sea wall to better withstand the tidal waves beating against it.

A side already shorn of Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Jordi Murphy and O'Brien saw Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne check out before the start of the second period. Yet whereas at the World Cup key absences seemed to sap the spirit of the team, this time misfortune had its silver lining.

Had Henshaw been able for selection, Garry Ringrose wouldn't have started. Which would have denied us the sight of Leinster's wonder boy weaving through the Australian tackles in a manner strikingly like Brian O'Driscoll scoring one of the hat-trick against France which announced his arrival to the world. There has been a lot of hype about Ringrose's potential. On this evidence it's erred on the side of caution. The kid is special and chances are that November 26, 2016 will be remembered not just as the date of a famous Irish win but as the date Garry Ringrose wrote the first chapter of what promises to be quite some international story.

Had Trimble stayed on we probably wouldn't have seen much of Simon Zebo. In the same way that Martin O'Neill sometimes seems not to fully trust Wes Hoolahan, Joe Schmidt's suspicion of Zebo seems a persistent thing. Yet Zebo once more supplied that little spark which makes the difference, the improvised kick through which led to the first try by Iain Henderson, that perfect transfer to Earls for the winning one. There were a couple of vital catches too as Bernard Foley planted probing kicks into the corner at a time when Australia were looking irresistible.

Earls too was superb, the swerve away from Michael Hooper to put Henderson in a reminder of what he brings to the table.

If Australia were a racehorse Michael Cheika would probably be called before the stewards to explain the massive disparity between their first- and second-half performances. For 38 minutes they were utterly outgunned and the 17-0 deficit was actually immensely flattering to them. The try they scored on the stroke of the break not only gave them hope, it was also an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come in a third quarter which reminded us that though the All Blacks are the best team in rugby, no one is as attractive as the Australians in full flow.

That flow threatened to sweep Ireland away but the home side hung tough as has been their wont in the Schmidt era. And when they drove for the Australian line after the hour, knowing, one suspects, that there might not be another chance to turn the game round, it couldn't have been more fitting that the most significant contribution came from Tadhg Furlong, hurdling tackles and driving on like a man possessed. The surprise packet of these three games and perhaps even its most dynamic performer, Furlong's ability to produce more than anyone expected was in him epitomises what Ireland have done over the past month.

There was the customary nerve-wracking late dice with death inside the Irish 22 to round things off. After all, it wouldn't be a Joe Schmidt game without one.

In Chicago Ireland made history at Soldier Field. And in Dublin they stood up and fought. And fought and then fought some more. They left it all out on the pitch this month. We're blessed to have them.

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