By Phil Rice
Ireland dug deep last weekend to find the reserves of strength and energy to overcome a strong Australia team in Melbourne, and square the three-match series.
This Saturday, in Sydney, they have the opportunity to achieve an historic series win to cap off a memorable season.
Ireland out-played the men in gold and green in every phase of the game, yet came dangerously close to losing the match in the closing minutes. It would have been treason had they lost, but their aching limbs just about held the rampant Aussies during those final few minutes.
It must feel like a major achievement to beat a side that contains David Pocock. The flanker seemed to be everywhere, tackling, winning turnovers and linking with ball carriers. He was tireless. Pocock returned to international rugby with a voracious appetite for action.
Had he not played, Ireland would surely have won easily. Again and again he thwarted Irish attacks. When it seemed that Ireland must score, somehow Pocock would win a turnover or a penalty for holding on the ground.
Peter O’Mahony did an impressive impersonation of Pocock for Ireland, and his all round performance was one of his best in a green shirt. When he is in that form he lifts those around him and sets a standard, just as Paul O’Connell did in his prime.
Not far behind him was man of the match Tadhg Furlong, who was back to his very best.
Barn-storming runs and fearsome drives were the hallmarks of his performance, but the crucial try he scored, when it looked as if Ireland would never break down the Aussie defence, was the defining moment of the match.
When Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt was informed that Furlong had been named man of the match, he quipped, “It must have been that spectacular dive to reach and get that try. I didn’t realise his arms were that long – he obviously wasn’t reaching into his pocket!”
Above all it was a team performance that gave Ireland victory and it will take at least a repetition of that form to win the series this week.
The back division looked far more potent with the return of the Sexton-Henshaw axis in midfield. Sexton relishes these confrontations against the best teams in the world.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) June 21, 2018
He oozes confidence and control as he dictates the play. While he may not have the pace or incisiveness of a Beauden Barrett, he reads the game better than any other ten in world rugby.
Australia expected a reaction from Ireland after their defeat in the first Test in Brisbane and they surely got it. Likewise, Ireland know that Michael Cheika’s men will not take defeat lying down.
This Saturday’s series decider in Sydney will be a hugely physical battle as both teams lay down markers in the build-up to next year’s World Cup.
Ireland have injury doubts from last weekend’s 26-21 win in Melbourne. Andrew Conway (hip), Dan Leavy (sternum) and Cian Healy (shoulder) are all struggling, while Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale are hoping to recover from knocks picked up in the first Test.
Schmidt has kept true to his word to give game-time to as many of his squad as possible. Tadhg Beirne won his first cap off the bench last Saturday.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) June 21, 2018
Looking ahead to this Saturday, Schmidt said: “We definitely want to win the series, but we’ve probably got ten games between this tour and our warm-up matches to the World Cup.
“So the thing that we want to believe about our squad is that there’s less and less between players, so selection is a contest every time.”
Cian Healy’s tackle on Will Genia resulted in a broken arm for the veteran scrum-half, who will be missed by the Aussies.
“Adam Coleman got a very nice golf ball on the side of his face,” as Cheika described it, after Rob Kearney accidentally butted the big second-row.
“We will get him off for some scans, if it’s a cheekbone or eye socket he can’t fly so we’ll just have to check and see where he’s at.”
The two matches have been fiercely contested. The sides are very evenly matched and this week will probably be even more ferocious as both teams hope to boost their confidence in the build-up to the World Cup.
Ireland have dominated territory and possession in both games but have failed to put Australia away. As long as Pocock and skipper Matt Hooper are around Australia will continue to be a real threat.
Ireland need to be more clinical in the ‘red zone’ and take the few try opportunities that come their way.
At a time when the other Northern Hemisphere teams have been less than impressive against their Southern Hemisphere opposition, it would be a timely victory if Ireland could win on Saturday and cap off an outstanding season.