Saturday 19 October 2019

Tony Ward: The most complete Irish performance of amazing season and solid building block on road to Japan

16 June 2018: Andrew Conway touches down against Australia. Photo: AP
16 June 2018: Andrew Conway touches down against Australia. Photo: AP
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

'We'll see what the good old Irish ticker's about" suggested Andy Farrell in advance, and by God in Melbourne's AAMI Stadium we did. What we saw was the most complete Irish performance of this amazing season by a mile.

For a Michael Cheika-coached team to be bullied by so many of his former charges on their own patch showed just where Ireland's squad is now at. And just as he did at Leinster when succeeding the current Wallaby coach Joe Schmidt has taken 'collective performance' to a new level.

It's not pretty to watch but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I love what I'm seeing in the search for Irish success moving towards Japan in just over a year, where a place in the last four must be the minimal return.

But for now let us concentrate on a Melbourne job incredibly well done. The hosts - deserving winners in Brisbane - finished as they started Saturday's game (at a rate of knots) but in between they were all but demolished by the team in green. It's not often we can say that against two-time world champions I happen to hold in the highest regard.

When it comes to tactical intelligence, thinking and acting in the heat of the moment, the Australians have long led the way. If ever the balance between fire in the belly but ice in the mind applied to a rugby nation then Australia is it. In that key respect the Wallaby class of 2018 came up short when the heat was on.

There were so many incidents, but in terms of a game-changing moment Bernard Foley's quick tap penalty and pass to Michael Hooper in isolation, resulting in the outstanding Peter O'Mahony winning the battle of the captains at the breakdown, set the tone for this must-win game.

O'Mahony, who along with CJ Stander, finished the season disappointingly for Munster, returned with his fellow back rower to the level they must always demand of themselves and each other. It was certainly a close call between the Irish skipper and Tadhg Furlong for Man of the Match although I have to say the latter too was at his belligerent bullying best.

Take your pick from O'Mahony, Furlong, Stander as well as both half-backs and little wonder, despite the misleading scoreline, that Ireland won so convincingly. Conor Murray was his usual controlling presence with the cut-out pass for Andrew Conway's try the essence of that Murray mint cool.

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The scrum-half was good but Johnny Sexton was even better again. This was one of his great games in green whereby he oozed leadership and control. He was everything his opposite number wasn't. There is no case for a sense of adventure over security in today's ultra-organised professional game. The need for bench impact through something different needs little elaboration but as of now, and for his maiden season in Munster ahead, the quest for Joey Carbery is to reach that level of test match control.

When Sexton is firing nobody controls the pivotal position with greater conviction - and I include Beauden Barrett and Owen Farrell (when at 10) in that. Barrett is the world's best but Sexton the perfect fit for a developing squad with the potential to challenge the All Blacks in the World Cup next year.

The other key factor in Saturday's win was the ability to maximise the numerical advantage when the Aussies were reduced to fourteen in the opening quarter. That is the ruthless mindset inculcated by Schmidt but driven by Sexton.

And while the Dan Leavy factor wasn't as marked as it might have been - due in the main to O'Mahony's dominance over both Hooper and David Pocock at the breakdown - his presence still gives an effective balance to the back row alongside the Munster duo. And no we're not forgetting Sean O'Brien or Tadhg Beirne.

Jordi Murphy, Rhys Ruddock and Josh van der Flier have so much to offer too and while Jack Conan may be down, he is far from out. The only non-selection I don't get is that of Sean Cronin.

Quite how you go from being shadow hooker to the skipper (Rory Best) to number three on this tour based apparently on one scrum I find difficult to fathom.

Scrummaging is Greg Feek's specialist field and the ultimate call is Schmidt's to make but for impact off the bench Cronin fits the Carbery/Jordan Larmour mould better than any other hooker at this point in time. I feel for Cronin in his current predicament and Saturday's win will not have helped his mindset.

Beyond that I am fuming over Conway's injury, shipped while in the act of scoring. It was not self-inflicted as has been suggested in some reports. Is it going to take a really serious injury before World Rugby addresses has long been a blight on the game? Apart from having your arms trapped at the bottom of a ruck I cannot think of a more exposed and, as a consequence, more vulnerable position than when crossing for a try. I couldn't tell you when I last saw a match official restart a game by way of a penalty on the halfway line to the scoring side. Here for sure is a very real cancer on the game.

All roads now lead to Sydney and I expect the Irish Diaspora to be there in droves. It's been one hell of a long season but the prize for one more week's hard graft is massive and, as a building block towards Japan, incalculable.

NB On Saturday the United States created their own little bit of rugby history by beating a Tier 1 Nation (Scotland 30-29) for the first time. Central to the success were AJ MacGinty and Dylan Fawsitt, both former Blackrock College SCT players.

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