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A triumph of will and skill

Irish coach Joe Schmidt ended up in hospital on Saturday night with suspected appendicitis, probably brought on by a stressful day at the office.

Whether it was the Barbarian nature of the first half, or the fact that it seemed that Australia had played most of the creative rugby, Saturday afternoon's dramatic game in the Aviva lacked the atmosphere of the South African game.

When the final whistle blew it was one of pure relief for Irish fans, and an indication that defences truly win matches. We witnessed one of the best 40 minutes of rugby you will ever see, and while the tries dried up in the second spell, it was still a magnificent contest.

On a hugely positive note this was the first time in nearly a decade that Ireland has won all their matches in the off season. It was also another vindication that Joe Schmidt's team has learnt a lot since their loss to the same side last year. This time they were not going to mess it up.

As far as World Cup aspirations go, in the last 18 months Ireland has beaten two of the three best teams in the world, won the last Six Nations and risen to third in the world rankings - not a bad return.

Sometimes Irish rugby fans can get a bit greedy. After all, rugby is still the third most popular male sport in this country, well behind GAA and soccer. Just to get close to some of these Southern Hemisphere teams is an achievement, let alone to actually beat them.

defensive screen

As against South Africa, Ireland rode their luck until the final whistle, but in the end they could still harp back to a magnificent Kearney drop goal that hit the post, and a defensive screen that just would not lie down.

Add in an Australian try that could have just as easily have been disallowed and Ireland just about deserved it. Australian Coach Michael Cheika complained post game about some of Kiwi referee Glen Jackson's decisions, and in some regard he had a right to be slightly annoyed, but overall Ireland's bravery in defence, especially in the last quarter, allowed them to claim another deserved scalp.

The game started with a bang. Who would have thought that after 15 minutes Ireland was scoring at a rate of nearly a point a minute. Ireland's first try was pure rugby intelligence. Irish playmaker Jonny Sexton, who had a pretty mixed day by his own high standards, saw debut Australian winger Henry Speight far too flat in his alignment, put in a simple kick to the corner and a luxurious bounce saw the flying Simon Zebo in at the corner, the perfect start.

Ireland's next try was in many regards the turning point of the game despite it being so early. Australia had the Irish on the back foot, and looked to have set up a certain try. With a three-man opverlapo, Wallaby scrumhalf Phipps left Irish winger Tommy Bowe with no option. Bowe went for it, intercepted and ran 90 metres to score.

It was a 14-point turnaround and Ireland were 17-0 up. Many in the Aviva Stadium, including myself, thought that was it, game done and dusted. Then came a purple spell by Australia that resulted in some of the most mesmerising rugby that the Wallabies have ever produced. Two tries from the very top drawer saw Phipps over for two and then Bernard Foley in what at the time what looked like a controversial call.

After analysis it seemed the ball had not gone forward and had the usually reliable Wallaby out half been on target with his kicks, Australia would have turned at the break four points up.

Ireland were under the cosh and lucky that the halftime whistle came when it did, with Australian tails up.

The second half was all about old-fashioned Irish pride, especially in defence. The mistake Cheika made was trying to bring on game-breakers like Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper too late in the game. The Australians, to their credit, wanted to win in style, and in the end it probably cost them.

It was hard to single out individual performers from the Irish team, but apart from the magnificent Rob Kearney, most of the main accolades came in the pack. Prop Jack McGrath is now world class, and while he does not carry ball quite as dynamically as Cian Healy, the gap between the two players is becoming very slight.

Second row Paul O Connell was simply magnificent, and his line speed in defence even up until the last minutes of the match was the catalyst for the Irish win. O'Connell is a flanker in disguise and how he keeps buzzing around the park making tackles and carrying ball is why he is one, if not the greatest player in his position that Ireland has ever produced.

Flanker Peter O Mahoney keeps getting better, while new centre Robbie Henshaw proved how far he has come from the naive kid that took the park against Australia last time out.

Joe Schmidt will be concerned about the flimsy defence in the first half, and the poor kicking from his players, but overall the spirit and will to win from Ireland was fantastic. Winning becomes a habit and Ireland has it, but before we get carried away, the last time this happened was in the 2006/7 season and Ireland capitulated at the 2007 World Cup.

The good news is that this is a different group of players with a different coach. Ireland has at least class 10 players to come back from injury, and that competition for positions will be vital come the Six Nations.

For now Ireland can just bask in the glory of proudly saying they are one of the top rugby nations in the world.


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