Ireland’s Call was a little bit different this time.
Normally, Ireland’s much-maligned rugby anthem ranges from power pop Celtic mysticism to weird violin covers, to the borderline comical and then, finally, to the special versions we’ve seen in Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium over the years. On Saturday, when the PA guy pressed play on – literally – the karaoke version of Ireland’s Call on Youtube, there was a brief pause as the song started. There was a low drone of the Oilean pipes filling before the traditional opening notes of Ireland’s Call drifted out of the stadium speakers and then the Irish in the stadium responded in a way I can’t really remember before.
Maybe I’m going soft in the sun – there’s no maybe about it, actually – but I remember what it was like to be thousands of miles away from home and forgetting all the reasons I left. I remember how I’d obsess about Ireland (and Munster) while on the opposite end of the globe as a way to connect with the country I’d left with the intention of never returning to. When I heard that reaction to the oilean pipe – a cheer of recognition, a cheer of excitement and expectation – I thought of all the Irish people who would have landed in Sydney over the last decade or more, and how they must have felt seeing this Irish side lining up in front of them with a series win in their sights. I thought of how I might have felt.
I’d be cheering too. It’s mawkish, I know, but fuck it, these are the little moments we watch sport for. Maybe the crowd was full of Irish emigrants on the lash not giving a shit but I know there was a few there like me, who heard those pipes and thought of home. That’s when a sports team can become an avatar for something much deeper and significant.
“I think we’re living in the good old days
So cheer up friends and be glad
I think we’re living in the good old days
The best anybody’s ever had” – Merle Ronald Haggard
Sometimes the relentless, week to week grind of the modern game can erode away our perspective of events as they stand. In the aftermath of Ireland’s tense, often thrilling victory in Sydney on Saturday morning, I think we need that perspective. This is the best Irish rugby season of all time. Full stop. The end. So far? We’ll see.
Just look at the accolades. A clean sweep in November. A PRO14 and Champions Cup double for Leinster. A Grand Slam. And now a series win over Australia in Australia at the end of a long, long season. We’re living through the events that Irish rugby fans of the future will look back on as the good ol’ days.
I’m old enough to remember Ireland winning two games out of twenty against the Wallabies. Now we’re winning two straight games in Melbourne and Sydney to seal a three-game series in Australia a few months after bossing England (in Twickenham) to win a Grand Slam.
Look, Ireland aren’t a perfect side and there are definite areas of improvement for them collectively, individually and from a depth management perspective, but days like Saturday are far from the norm for those with long enough memories to remember when Ireland weren’t the powerhouse we appear to be in 2018. These days have to be savoured.
We’re not talking about the “Golden Generation” anymore – they’re all but retired now – but we are where we are today because of the work those greats put in. Nothing exists in isolation. I’ve said that before, but it’s worth remembering as this epic, historic season winds down to a close. The standards we’re reaching today came from the standards of O’Gara, O’Driscoll, O’Connell, Hickie, Hayes, Flannery, O’Callaghan and the rest.
Those standards also mean an allergy to stand back and admire your work for too long. The game doesn’t stop, and if you stay satisfied with a year like we’ve just had, then the chances of repeating it degrade exponentially. Smug causes softness, softness loses games. When you know that there’s no success sweeter than the next one, no amount of plaudits can touch you.
So let’s have a look at how this one was earned.
The standout feature of this game was the tense atmosphere that permeated every action on the pitch. In theory, this was a test match to decide the destination of the Lansdowne Cup but that wasn’t the real prize on offer here. This was two evenly matched collectives playing out the rugby equivalent of “familiarity breeds contempt”. The two tests leading to this game were peppered with refereeing controversy, off the ball hits, yellow cards and the kind of rucking that has players waking up in a cold sweat 20 years later. This series decider was going to be the natural endgame of that physicality, and it certainly lived up to the hype in that regard.
The significance of this win in that context can’t really be overstated. This wasn’t the Wallabies on a development run. There’s a tendency to handwave summer and winter tours as “friendlies” but anyone who paid any attention to these last three tests would know that they were a lot of things, but “friendly” they absolutely were not. This was an excellent test series played out by two teams who are a stylistic nightmare for each other.
The Wallabies is an extraordinarily bad matchup for Ireland in 2018, as they have been for the last four or five years.
They’re excellent on the floor, they’re solid in the lineout, fantastic in the air and, with their improved scrum, there’s no obvious avenue for Ireland to outmatch them. The same could be said of Ireland for the Wallabies – we are a good in the air, we have a great set-piece and we’ve got a game based on phase possession with a premium placed on offensive ruck accuracy.
Maybe that’s why the test series was scored 55-55 over the three tests and why it’s 108 – 102 to Ireland over the course of the last five encounters. That’s the difference of a converted try over the course of four years.
When Australia get the better of the breakdown and the aerial contest, they win – like test one.
When Ireland get the better of the breakdown and the aerial contest, we win – like we did in the last two tests.
You could play another two tests and the margins would probably stay as thin as they have been over the previous three tests.
Even with the win, I’d be hesitant to describe this Irish performance as “vintage” but it displayed a lot of guts, a lot of grit and a lot of testicular fortitude when it came down to the winning moments. Johnny Sexton – that’s Mister Testicular Fortitude to you – did the business to put this game just out of the Wallabies reach in the 78th minute.
That kick was the exclamation point on a cumulation of big plays from 70 minutes on. Jordan Larmour stood up big time when examined by Beale and Folau on 75 minutes.
That was preceded by a crucial defensive moment from Bundee Aki and Keith Earls when the Australians were pressing and probing on a breakdown turnover transition.
Those little moments add up over the course of an endgame, but they don’t really tell the story of this tense decider.
The game started at the same pace of the previous tests. The sides exchanged early penalties with the primary area of combat being on Ireland’s narrow packed centrefield defence vs Australia’s weaving attempts to force a defensive overload on one side.
The half itself was defined by three penalty decisions.
The first was Jacob Stockdale’s correct yellow card for a bad fend.
It looked harsh on first viewing, but under the letter of the law, I think it was a fair enough decision. From the resulting penalty, Foley kicked Australia into the lead. Instead of pressing home the advantage, Australia found themselves on the end of classic Ireland sin bin management. Ireland earned a penalty off a three-phase kick transition from the restart, burned a full minute off the clock with a long-range penalty miss and then went for 17 phases before turning over the ball at the last pass.
You can see the idea here – use Henshaw to stick Folau, O’Mahony/McGrath to hold the pillar defence, Sexton to draw the floating defender and then pull the ball back to Toner to bull through the hole but we couldn’t hold onto the ball. This play might have suited a Henderson rather than Toner, but that’s neither here nor there.
That last pass in the 22 has been a troublesome thing to find in this series, and it was here again on a few occasions. It’s one of the few negatives from this tour and something that’ll probably be at the forefront of Schmidt’s thinking over the summer.
The next penalty decision was massively contentious.
Well, I say contentious but that only describes the talk around the decision. The actual video of the jump shows the reasoning of referee and TMO fairly clearly.
Folau’s initial contest for the ball was fine, but the downward pulling motion on O’Mahony’s body after the ball is what caused the fall and resultant yellow card. If it was a penalty – and it was – then it had to be a yellow card. It’s not really as controversial as the reaction to everything from Stander’s jump assist to the nature of aerial physics in the aftermath might suggest.
Australia lost Folau for 10 minutes and Ireland lost O’Mahony for the rest of the game. Ireland almost scored during the sin bin period but were denied at the base of the post.
We scored a penalty but conceded one a few minutes later to leave the game 9-9 as Ireland kicked off with the clock going red in the first half.
That’s when the third decisive penalty was conceded – an offside from an Australian knock on.
That gave Ireland a lead that we wouldn’t relinquish.
Ireland’s maul has been a little understated in this series but it came up here when we needed it. We’d mauled well all game once our initial nerves from touch dissipated.
This was a lineout we’d like back;
Scannell was caught for a dummy throw here but we were a little scrappy in the line to the point that I’m not 100% sure what we were planning here. Once we settled down though, we took the Wallabies for a walk on a few occasions.
That was especially evident for Ireland’s first try. As an actual lineout call in design and execution, this was extraordinarily brazen and Toner deserves huge credit for making it, as Simon Easterby does for constructing it.
Scannell’s throw and Murphy’s jump are perfect – but that’s not the whole story.
Look at Toner, Ryan and Conan’s feinting work and subsequent pace to drive the maul on the break. Look at McGrath’s superb lifting route from the front to the back. Look at the way CJ snaps in from receiver to drive this home.
It’s such a clean execution that Scannell isn’t even needed to drive it home. As mauled tries go, it was as good as it gets at test level.
That was backed up by superb maul defence at the other end of the pitch.
This was an area that Ireland will be delighted with, especially the maul defence in the second half.
Australia’s second-half rally was fairly predictable based on their bench makeup and it certainly played out that way.
Australia’s attacking strategy was based on forcing Ireland into defensive overloads, such as the one that lead to their first try last week. In the punch/counterpunch world of a three-game series, that will have stuck out to Cheika and their try was based on the same principle.
Ireland had five men (plus two tacklers) trapped on the blindside of a ruck and Australia took advantage of the number mismatch to catch Ireland wide. Once this went to the second layer, Foley just had to execute.
Stockdale didn’t really have any other option but to come up on the edge here and Kearney was caught coming against the grain by Australia’s strongest strike runner in space. That tightened the game up before Mr Testicular Fortitude did his thing.
The final whistle went with a mixture of joy, relief and exhaustion.
The fuel tank was spent, the win was secured and it was time for the beach.
This Ireland squad have bigger fish to fry than this game, but this summer – this season, in fact – is one they’ll remember when they’re old and grey.
And be remembered for.
The Wally Ratings: Australia 3 (a)
The Wally Ratings explainer page is here. This is the first game where I use the new FIVE STAR SYSTEM to easier track form over the course of a season.
As per usual, players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. Peter O’Mahony’s rating is curtailed due to his first-half injury.
Jack Conan needed a big game and had it in spades. He carried the dirty ball, tackled himself into the dirt and fronted up all over the place. Impressive.
Jordan Larmour looked like a guy making a play for the starting #15 shirt with his nerveless, exciting cameo. A livewire.
Keith Earls had a bit of an off the ball masterclass for wingers. Defensive positioning, grit, rucking and all the usual added value you get from the Moyross Express. The man.
Niall Scannell had his second big start in two weeks and did himself the world of good once again. Once the lineout settled in the first 10 minutes, he was near faultless. Big scrummaging, rock hard carrying and latching and some bruising ruck work. Top drawer.
Peter O’Mahony was on the line for another ★★★★★ performance before his and Folau’s coming together. He’s the real Iron Man, and he doesn’t need a suit to make it work.
I thought this was CJ Stander’s best game for Ireland, considering the stage of the season, the opposition and the time of year. He was borderline unplayable out there.
He hit the gain line a little wider than usual – Conan took up some of the usual channel one load – and absolutely vaporised the Australian cover on the second/third phase on more than a few occasions. He was a rock in defence, in the maul and was our second highest passer outside of the halfbacks for the second week running.
This kind of performance reminded everyone who Mr Man of the Match really is, and gave a glimpse of where CJ’s game may yet go to. What a stud and, to top it off, a ★★★★★ man.
I’ll be covering all the details of this game, as well as reviewing everyone’s tour performance on TRK Premium during the week.