Tuesday 16 January 2018

Powerful Australians run riot to expose Ireland's fault lines


Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Midway through the first half at Lansdowne Road yesterday evening the Wallabies were really enjoying what for them is their spring tour. Most times they come up to this end of the world it hoses down from the heavens and they look like they've fetched up in a storm. But there they were in the most benign conditions, tipping away happily at 15-3 and with everything going their way.

Problems at the scrum? Nothing like they expected. Under pressure to retain their own lineout ball? No more than they were exerting on Ireland. And all the other vital signs? All bar one – the penalty count – were very good. Happy days, as they might say themselves.

The only change by the end was that the picture looked even better for them. Despite being cleaned out on penalties 17-7 (two of which were free kicks), having one man in the bin and another even further back in the stand with a red card, they spent the last quarter of this unexciting Test match thinking about what they might get up to last night. Whatever Joe Schmidt expected from this encounter, it certainly wasn't that.

He is left to plan for the arrival of the All Blacks, who get into town today, without Johnny Sexton and maybe Rob Kearney too. Losing both would seriously weaken the side, for Kearney was Ireland's best player. What will worry Schmidt most, however, is that if both had been hale and hearty when the final whistle went the scoreline wouldn't have been much different, for his team were beaten all over the park and it started when Ireland were at full strength.

In the old days in this fixture the Wallabies had only to get through a few phases and get the ball into the wide channels to put Ireland into intensive care. This wasn't in the same bracket, but certainly the home team struggled when the attack was coming wide of the 15 metre line. That's where the damage was done for their first-half tries, for Nick Cummins and man of the match Michael Hooper, who finished with two. Indeed Cummins would have matched the flanker's stat if TMO Geoff Warren hadn't knocked back what looked like a good score early in the second half.

Significantly that had come after Israel Folau had comfortably won an aerial battle with two men in green, at the start of the half, and got the Aussies going in the right direction. He was outstanding. Whether Ireland's box kicking wasn't good enough, or they had the wrong men chasing, or not chasing well enough, will be examined before they start firing kicks to the New Zealand back three on Sunday, but for sure the skies belonged to the boys in green and gold. Schmidt classes this as the third set-piece, and it struggled even more than the scrum.

The scariest stat of the day, though, was the 4-0 try count. Ireland's best chance of the first half came when battering around the Wallaby line, opting to scrum a penalty en route, but then opting for three points from Sexton when it looked like their opponents might cave in.

After the break, they got over only when the day was almost done – through Sean Cronin. And Mr Warren knocked that one back as well, for a spill forward at the previous ruck by Conor Murray. Ireland passed the ball poorly all day, and while statistically they made more line breaks than Australia (8-5) it didn't feel that way. Rather the Aussies seemed to read well enough what Ireland were doing most of the time, and once they had established that lead in the first half the fear was that we'd be reaching for the record books.

In fact Ireland reined them in, with three Sexton penalties in the second quarter, the last seven minutes of which were spent with Hooper in the bin after smothering Fergus McFadden, who had made a good break.

A 15-12 lead looked like a new game, but in the last play of the half Sexton hobbled off having pulled up when his hamstring went. The Aussies were never troubled after the break, though, and got after Ian Madigan in a big way. He contributed Ireland's only points of the second 40, with a penalty, while Quade Cooper, who passed and kicked really well from the hand, scored a fine try off a scrum, exposing Luke Marshall 10 metres from his own line.

When Cooper knocked over a penalty a few minutes later it put Australia 25-12 ahead with half an hour to play, and Ireland looked spent. They did manage to raise a gallop, however, but after Madigan's penalty closed the gap to 25-15 they had the chance of another handy three points – there were 19 minutes left – which would at least asked questions of their visitors.

Instead they went to touch and lost the ball forward on the drive. Game over, there and then. All that remained was for Australia to ram the point home and they did that with a lineout drive that didn't need referral to anybody. All their forwards were on board as Hooper touched down, and the pack looked like very happy men as they walked back to the halfway line. Their opponents looked troubled. And so they should be. It will be a long week in Camp Ireland.

Scorers – Ireland: J Sexton 4 pens, I Madigan pen. Australia: M Hooper 2 tries, N Cummins try, Q Cooper try, 3 cons, 2 pens

Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, L Marshall, F McFadden; J Sexton (I Madigan h-t), E Reddan (C Murray 57); C Healy (J McGrath 70), R Best (S Cronin 66), M Ross (S Archer 66), D Toner (M McCarthy 71), P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony, J Heaslip, S O'Brien (K McLaughlin 71)

Australia: I Folau; A Ashley-Cooper (J Tomane 59); T Kuridrani (rc 73), M Toomua, N Cummins; Q Cooper, W Genia (N White 67); J Slipper (B Robinson 70), S Moore (Y Polota Nau 70), S Kepu (P Ryan 67), R Simmons, J Horwill (S Timani 57), S Fardy, B Mowen (capt), M Hooper (yc 33-43; L Gill 73))

Referee: C Pollock (NZ)

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