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Wednesday 15 August 2018

Mask slips for Aussies

I SUPPOSE it’s time for some rational perspective. Contemplative thought in the giddy aftermath of a sensational win.

So in moments of sobriety, how do we assess what happened early last Saturday morning? It has been classed as one of Ireland's greatest wins ever. I cannot disagree.

It is certain that this team and other teams before it have played a better class of rugby in winning memorable games over the years. If this is classed as the world stage and the credibility and respect which players attach to this competition is anything to go by then this defining victory is indeed their greatest win.

Ireland have beaten Australia twice in the last nine years in Dublin in November test matches, which effectively have no real competitive meaning. Ireland also beat Australia in 1979 in Australia in a test series. How do we quantify the competitive worth of a touring test series win? Ireland have won Triple Crowns and Grand Slams over the course of the last six or seven years and some of the matches, in particular the ones against England, will live in the memory until we expire.

It is true that Ireland played some scintillating rugby and as a collective out-performed, as they probably did back in 1948. The difference now is that the currency by which you value things is done every four years at World Cup time. It also has to be stated that this was only a pool match, something Brian O'Driscoll and Declan Kidney were at pains to emphasise.

It is also worth noting that Ireland were nowhere near their best, and neither were their opponents, who were a long way off the capacity \[Ian Winterton\]that they were operating at when they beat New Zealand in Brisbane only a few short weeks ago. What sets this victory apart is that Ireland beat a SANZA side who just happened to be the recently crowned Tri-Nations champions in a meaningfully competitive game when they absolutely had to – when a loss meant that their World Cup would probably end in the quarter-final, |like most of Ireland’s other ignominious exits.

There are few sides in the world that have an On/Off button. In rugby the New Zealanders most definitely have one, Australia have it most of the time, Ireland get the lend of one once every 10 years and more often than not it is down to providence and dumb luck |as to whether we actually get to push that button.

The fact that Ireland have won a match south of the equator against a SANZA side in a competition which is rated by all of the top sides jumps this performance to the top of the queue. It marks a new departure and puts us up there with England and France, who have managed to do it from time to time.

I have watched this embryonic Australian side being crafted by Robbie Deans. Deans is arguably the smartest coach in the competition and his CV stands up to the most stringent scrutiny – seven Super 14 titles with the Canterbury Crusaders tells you that this coach knows his stuff and Australia, after disposing of John Connolly, were smart enough to hire him when |New Zealand plumped for Graham Henry again.

Yes, they under-performed on Saturday morning but that does not mean they are now not contenders. It just means that they will have to do it the hard way and they have become an awful lot more dangerous as a result of the spanking they took.

How did they lose? It was simple – Declan Kidney and his management team second-guessed them. They gave Ireland an implicit game plan and it was executed by willing minds. The damage was done at set piece. Most people who watched will have seen what happened at scrum time and know for themselves what took place, but that is not the whole answer.

Most of you will have seen Australia win the Tri-Nations and also will have noted how efficient the Queensland Reds, who backbone the national side, were in winning the Super 15 championship this year. There is no question that they are a creative and inventive side, but their brand is an illusion.

Blood

Australia are a set-piece side who rely on set plays. They are masquerading as a team of spontaneity and spur-of-the-moment brilliance. They rely on field position, and quality set-piece ball is their life blood, just as it is Ireland’s.

You might be fooled by the highlight packages you see on TV but Queensland, during their Super 15 run, and Australia in their Tri-Nations quest kicked the ball more often than any other side. They need field position and they need line-outs.

Ireland destroyed this platform and out of nine line-outs that Australia won, two of which they lost in the air, only one line-out ball was of strictly useable quality. At scrum time Australia had eight feeds, they lost one and were penalised five times under pressure which means they only had two balls of useable quality in 80 minutes. 2+1 ... well, you do the maths.

With their tight platform rendered useless, Australia were reliant on ball that we kicked to them and in the conditions and the position they found themselves in on the field, they found it extremely difficult to either counter attack or hold on to the ball for any period of time.

They should have lost by a whole heap more. Jonny Sexton was two from five. Forty per cent success rate doesn't win World Cups and if Ireland had been especially good they could have capitalised on two of five definite try chances which would have put them out of sight on the scoreboard.

Whether this revival is sustainable is another question and I have a bad feeling that Ireland will not get things all their own way in Dunedin on October 2 but will still win, hopefully without injury.

The interchangability of the halves didn't have any real detrimental effects and Sexton looked easy at first centre. Conor Murray – apart from one bad mistake – felt his way into the game pretty well but you got the feeling that the force was with Ireland and whoever they sent on would fit in.

If David Norris came on to the field with a stuffed jacket and a neckerchief carrying a tray full of Pimms and six coupe glasses, he would still have been able to give an effective service to his out-half, which brings us nicely to our out-half.

Ronan O'Gara ambiguously stated that his career would end after Ireland's final game in this competition – whenever that may be. In the euphoria of such a magnificent victory emotions run high. I'm sure it has been on his mind for quite a while. You don't just decide to retire on the spur of the moment.

Mature

O'Gara is a very mature player and is probably very well aware of the detrimental effect of such an announcement and the timing that such an announcement would have on his teammates. Maybe it just slipped out, but it would certainly have a retardant effect on the good feeling and the flow of endorphins currently being enjoyed by his teammates.

It will also alter considerably the dynamic of the rivalry between himself and Johnny Sexton. Will Sexton become a better player or will his performances even off as a result of O'Gara's absence? Paul McNaughton moved quickly to dampen down the blow of the announcement and promptly asked him to reconsider.

Normally such announcements are preceded by a formal press conference and it is signalled to a variety of bodies. Maybe at 34 he has had enough and, champion that he is, is no longer interested in sitting on the bench when his pedigree and his own mind tell him he should be starting.

Either way, he still has a significant and important part to play in this championship which has been blown wide open.

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