Friday 21 September 2018

Schmidt's dogs of war battle to decisive victory

Australia 16 Ireland 20

Johnny Sexton kicks the decisive penalty against Australia in Sydney yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran
Johnny Sexton kicks the decisive penalty against Australia in Sydney yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

An epic finish to an enthralling series: if you were framing a three-match set-piece then top of your wishlist is that it's still alive when the hooter goes in the last game. So that was a bonus, never mind who won it. But if you were the Wallabies, desperate to avoid losing another series having drawn a blank against England here two years ago, then it would have been hard to find value in the drama of it all.

For the tourists it was a different story. Two weeks ago in Brisbane they had edged a point ahead in the third quarter, and given their capacity to come out the right side of tight contests this season you could see them doing it again. But they were caught.

Devin Toner of Ireland rises to catch the ball in a line-out. Photo: Reuters
Devin Toner of Ireland rises to catch the ball in a line-out. Photo: Reuters

So they had to go to Melbourne and dig out a win, and yesterday in Sydney in front of a record crowd of 44,085 for this venue, again they found themselves in a high-stakes game of musical chairs. They just about had their cheeks on the seat when the music stopped.

At times in the second half you had to keep checking the scoreboard to make sure Ireland were ahead, so far had the pendulum swung towards the home team. And when Australia had that momentum they looked more likely to make it pay. Their carrying was ferocious but equally they were able to throw different shapes at Ireland to keep the tourists' defence close to breaking point.

How did it not snap? Two reasons: all night its line-speed and aggression had been first class; and when presented with chances to put Ireland away the Aussies just couldn't take them. The sight of the prize seemed to weaken their composure. On 66 minutes they had Ireland gasping, and had just won a penalty wide out for Robbie Henshaw going high on Israel Folau. If you were in green then you were hoping they would chance the shot at goal rather than stick it into the corner.

Sure enough Bernard Foley opted for a tricky kick, and missed. It rattled the Wallabies. Next came a knock-on that should have been held; then a pass ruled forward against replacement scrum-half Joe Powell. You could feel the unease shifting towards high stress in the crowd.

Australia's Nick Phipps challenges Ireland's Jacob Stockdale. Photo: AP
Australia's Nick Phipps challenges Ireland's Jacob Stockdale. Photo: AP

And when on 79 minutes Tolu Latu was harshly penalised at a tackle when his poach on Johnny Sexton seemed fair enough, the anger was palpable. Sexton stood up and nailed the kick. They don't bother down here with the self-important bullshit so highly valued in Thomond Park about affording silence to goal-kickers. The locals hurled abuse at the Ireland captain. It was perfect. As was his response.

The four-point gap left the hosts needing a try to win. The final insult came when the TMO ruled Jacob Stockdale to not have touched a pass from Foley that went to ground. It could so easily have gone against him, which would have left his team defending a lineout five metres from their own line and down to 14 men for the second time in the game. But it had a happy ending for the Ulster wing, who had another good game in what has been a dream season. His was one of many excellent performances. CJ Stander was brilliant, winning the man of the match award, helped by 12 tackles and 15 carries, and Jack Conan too had a fine game in defence with a massive 20 tackles.

The set-piece wasn't faultless, and at the breakdown the bounty on the head of David Pocock went unclaimed. His partner in crime, Michael Hooper, was an early casualty after a huge clean by Tadhg Furlong, and the Wallabies missed him badly. To balance that Ireland lost Peter O'Mahony when he landed with a thud after Folau pulled him down in an aerial duel. Both those losses came in a first half when Ireland again had heaps of ground and ball. They were methodical and efficient in stacking up the phases but again it could have done with another dimension.

By the break they were 12-9 in front, both sides having done well to get through their periods down to 14 men - Stockdale had been binned for leading with an elbow on Nick Phipps, followed by Folau soon after - and Sexton's 4-3 against Foley in the penalty shootout made the difference.

Ireland's Jacob Stockdale (second right) is shown a yellow card. Photo: AP
Ireland's Jacob Stockdale (second right) is shown a yellow card. Photo: AP

The out-half and team leader was terrific again. Outside him Bundee Aki was very good, as was Rob Kearney before he went off to be replaced by Jordan Larmour. It was a high-stakes game for Larmour, pulling up a stool when the big guns were already going full-on, but he did everything right. That will stand to him.

Ireland picked up again in the second half and when Stander got over from a perfect maul they looked like kicking on, but Sexton pulled the conversion and it seemed to open a door to the Wallabies.

They barged through it. On 55 minutes Marike Koroibete showed good skill in gathering a nudge ahead by Foley to get over for a try, and the out-half's conversion left just a point in it. The big shots were coming thick and fast now, and Lukhan Tui's cleaving of Aki had the crowd on their feet. Next Cian Healy was done at a scrum. Another sign the home team were heading towards the promised land. They will be furious with referee Pascal Gauzerre for a few things, but they had enough opportunities to put Ireland away. The good news for Michael Cheika is that his side will be better for experience of the last few weeks. Their scrum is now a solid, functional unit, and if they learn from this then they will be contenders at the World Cup.

And that's Ireland's aim. They are ahead of the Wallabies in self-belief, which probably is unique in our history against this opposition. Their game management and nous - driven and led by Sexton - is high-quality stuff. And their willingness to go to war is beyond question. If it was a fine finish to a fine season then equally it was a good opener to what comes next.

Ireland's Peter O'Mahony, center, holds up the Lansdowne Cup as he celebrates with teammates. Photo: AP
Ireland's Peter O'Mahony, center, holds up the Lansdowne Cup as he celebrates with teammates. Photo: AP

Scorers - Australia: Koroibete try; Foley con, 3 pens. Ireland: Stander try, Sexton 5 pens

Australia: I Folau (yc 30-40); D Haylett-Petty, S Kerevi, K Beale, M Koroibete (R Hodge 70); B Foley, N Phipps (J Powell 61); S Sio (T Robertson 62), B Paenga-Amosa (T Latu h-t), S Kepu (T Tupou 55), I Rodda (N Hannigan 72), A Coleman (R Simmons 46), L Tui, D Pocock, M Hooper (capt, P Samu 16)

Ireland: R Kearney (J Larmour 57); K Earls, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Stockdale (yc 21-31); J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath (C Healy 56), N Scannell (R Herring 55), T Furlong (J Ryan 67), D Toner, J Ryan, CJ Stander, J Conan (T Beirne 67), P O'Mahony (capt, J Murphy 31)

Referee: P Gauzerre (France)

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