Ireland were faced with a specific job this Saturday morning. Win or bust.
That might seem like an unusual direction on a summer tour but the expectations levied on this Irish squad are not what they were even four years ago. This new Ireland – now a solid second in the world behind the All Blacks – are expected to right historical wrongs every time they’re presented with one. Ireland hadn’t scored a try against Australia in Australia for 10 years before Saturday morning and, to make things worse, hadn’t managed to beat the Wallabies in Australia since the late 70s. But, like South Africa 2016 and Soldier Field 2017, another historic black mark was wiped off the board by Joe Schmidt’s Irish side with a bruising, endlessly physical win in Melbourne.
“You are as good as your last game, I know that is a horrible cliché, but you are. That’s certainly how we felt after losing the first Test. It hurts. You don’t sleep too well, you run it over in your mind a few times, you watch it back a fair few times, and you try to find solutions to problems.” – Joe Schmidt
The reason this game was so important in the context of Ireland’s season is clear when you see the reasoning that comes from the top down. If you – genuinely – believe that you’re collectively only as good as your last game then the concept of being OK with losing a test series in June just because there was a Grand Slam won in March can’t happen. That’s the mindset that Ireland are trying to develop and, with that mindset, there comes a lot of pressure to perform, especially the week after a somewhat chastening defeat.
Every team is out to beat Ireland and make a statement. We are underdogs no longer bar playing anyone other than the All Blacks. That’s the kind of pressure that team’s like the All Blacks live with every time they cross that white line and it’s the kind of pressure Ireland must become accustomed to. It’s the kind of pressure they face on this tour.
Last week, Ireland fell to an Australian side that consistently interrupted our possession by slowing our ruck recycle and punishing our ball carriers with an aggressive blitz after the reset. David Pocock and Michael Hooper were dominant over the ball, especially in an environment where Ireland were spreading the rucks a little further apart than normal to maximise the carriers we had on the day. Our ruck support was spread out – and reliant on backs – so that was the kind of situation where two specialist fetchers like Hooper and Pocock can be hugely influential. It proved to be the case.
How would Ireland respond this week?
With blunt force trauma. By bringing Healy, Scannell, Leavy and Furlong into the starting XV alongside Stander, Schmidt came close to the power carrying formula that saw Ireland win so convincingly in Twickenham back in March.
That rotation of carriers allowed Ireland to compress Australia, cycle through numerous big ball carriers and grind out metres.
All of these carries made good ground, all three phases shown happened within 15 seconds with dominant cleans and all of the action occurred in a 20m box in the middle of the field. Pay particular attention to the way that Ireland physically dominated each of these rucks – there’s no time or space for Australia to make an active attempt at getting on the ball.
That kind of forward pressure in the middle of the pitch allows Ireland to grind to the edge of Australia’s forward defence and expose Foley and Beale down the blindside.
We weren’t able to take advantage on this phase (because we brought Pocock into the play with our passing) but look at what we had back infield on the reset.
That’s two heavy three-man screens with Sexton and Ringrose tucked behind them. All six carrying options are legit heavy carriers and all had shown Australia reason to respect their ball carrying in the preceding 19 minutes. Not only that, Ireland have exposed a big openside play with good numbers and trapped Pocock & Hooper at the last ruck. Exactly as Ireland would have planned. We forced Australia into a slapdown penalty on the very next phase but you can see what the play was;
Ryan takes this at pace, blows through the gap outside Timu and all of a sudden, Ireland are in behind the gain line with Ringrose, Henshaw and Larmour surging around the corner and Stander drifting through the middle as an infield option.
When Ireland play like this, they dominate possession, hurt the opposition in the carry and overload the opposition defence. For much of this game, that was the dominant story. Here’s another narrow set of heavy phases in the Australian 22;
And that after 10 phases. That last one – a punch up the middle by Furlong and Scannell for a good +5m gain – is a good example of the physical pressure Ireland brought to this game up the middle of the pitch and the opportunities it created.
Here’s an even more stark illustration;
A huge drive up the middle on second phase exposes workable space for Ireland to attack out wide. That just didn’t happen last week.
On a few occasions, I felt Ireland might have got a little more reward from the infringements we forced with our phase pressure but the man in the middle thought differently with regards to further sanction. I felt this incident could have been yellow card worthy given the huge 2-1 on the outside, for example.
Little moments like that – as well as six Australian penalties in a row during the third quarter – stymied some of what Ireland tried to do.
That isn’t to say that there wasn’t inaccuracy from Ireland either – this scuffed pass off a kick transition when Ireland had a great wide alignment to work with will be one we’ll want back.
There were a few other opportunities – mainly ones that were a decision or two away from fruition or a missed kick – but I can’t say that Ireland spurned “dozens of chances”, as I’ve heard some suggest.
When the clear opportunities presented them, Ireland took them with a reasonable level of efficiency. After Keith Earls had a try chalked off, Furlong struck a decisive blow in the 53rd minute.
Look at the decision making here. Furlong spots Pocock leaving the line to counter-ruck, floats over to line up across from Phipps, shouts to Murray (who makes an elite pass) and the Jukebox gets the finish.
The game tightened up from there, and when McGrath saw yellow for a borderline comical intervention at the ruck, Australia pulled the game back to five points but couldn’t get any closer. Australia were good – and they have got a lot of inherent quality in their side – so Ireland can be very happy with the nature of their win here.
We’ll head to Sydney this weekend for a series decider.
It’s 1-1, which isn’t anything to whoop and holler about on its own but this game has shown the template for the deciding test next week. Blunt force trauma will get the job done nicely and, honestly, it’s a little weird to see an Irish team operating at this level of physicality. We used to marvel at teams that could play like we are now – that’s something to take in and appreciate.
The Wally Ratings: Australia 2 (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. Keiran Marmion and Jack Conan are not rated due to less than 15 minutes on the pitch.
I thought Niall Scannell took his opportunity with both hands in this game. He was incredibly physical in everything that he did here. He showed up as a heavy carrier – which I wasn’t expecting – and made some excellent ground up the middle of the field. He also threw excellently, slammed the door at the tail of the lineout in defence and scrummaged really strongly.
A timely reminder of his quality.
Keith Earls was superb. He was targeted under the high ball a few times but stood up to every one of them, and replied with a few trademark breaks of his own.
The kind of high-quality performance that coaches just love.
Devin Toner and James Ryan were outstanding in very different ways. Ryan carried hard all game and looked like the Phenom he clearly is. Toner was Mr Dirty Work. He rucked, he mauled, he took the strain in the lineout and he tracked the play excellently as heavy support.
CJ Stander had a super game that became better on the second watch. He was everywhere in defence and had a good pop to his carries.
He was excellent at the breakdown on both sides of the ball and, for me, had as good a game as I’ve seen from him in a while.
Rob Kearney was back to his best after a blip last week. He returned his kicks with high energy ball carrying that had a palpable impact on the Australian transition and made several excellent contributions to the ruck.
When Tadhg Furlong plays like this, it’s hard to argue that he’s close to being the most dangerous forward in world rugby right now. Look at this passage of play for a rough approximation of what he does so well;
He pulls the ball back for Ringrose at pace, tracks the outstanding offload from Peter O’Mahony and then nails Pocock at the next ruck. It’s one thing to be big – and Furlong certainly is – but it’s his pace, engine and handling ability that mark him out as being something very special. He was an absolute brute here. He scrummaged incredibly well, lifted with the precision you’d expect, scored a try, hammered the Australian defensive line and beat six defenders while he was at it. When he plays like this, he’s almost impossible to stop.
One of the most reliable memes in Irish rugby is that Peter O’Mahony is – somehow – not a “guaranteed starter” at test level. Maybe it was the manner of his Test reemergence post-ligament rupture in March 2016, maybe it’s the fact that a lot of what O’Mahony does isn’t quantifiable on ESPN stats. Either way, it’s persistent. O’Mahony’s usual game is based on facilitating the game of others. He jumps in the lineout on both sides of the throw, he’s a core part of our offensive and defensive maul, he’s an excellent rucker and defensive organiser beyond the ruck, he’s a leader. He’s a guy that Schmidt relies on and you can tell that by his selection in every top level game he’s been fit for since 2016.
In games like this, where much of the attacking lineout responsibility fell on Toner’s shoulders, you can see O’Mahony have a standout game. He won three penalties at the breakdown against an aggressive Australian cleanout.
He carried with the kind of leg drive post contact that he had pre-knee injury, he did a good job of choking the Australian throw, he offloaded, he linked the play with the kind of accurate passing that has become a key facet of his game in the last year and he rucked with the kind of cruelty that Schmidt would have demanded. A standout performance from the captain.
Both of O’Mahony’s and Furlong’s approach to this game can be summed up in this GIF.
Two performances of the highest quality.
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