Australia arrived here hoping that they were about to take another step towards a grand slam tour, the only previous completion of which was in 1984. Next weekend at Twickenham they will play England with that target off the table. They came back from 17-0 at half-time against Ireland – the same score as two years ago here – to lead in the third quarter, only to be overhauled again by a hugely spirited home side. For Ireland it completed a hat-trick over the big three of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in this calendar year. Remarkable stuff.
Ask the average Aussie his impression of November internationals in Dublin and chances are rain and cold will feature in the first sentence. Not this time. It was a perfect setting for rugby: still and mild and yet another full house in a -stadium that is sold out for Ireland’s games until the end of the season.
The quality of the contest was first class: for the first 39 minutes Ireland were as close to optimum performance as was reasonable to expect from a side minus Sean O’Brien – withdrawn an hour before kick-off – Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw. When coaches talk about injuries being an opportunity for others they dream of stuff like this. Josh van der Flier was man of the match and Garry Ringrose, against significantly superior odds, had a tremendous game.
Perhaps the best bit for Joe Schmidt was that his side looked beaten in the third quarter, by which stage their back line had been hastily rearranged and the fuel tank looked perilously low. At that point there was a clinical look to the Aussies who made light of the fact that they have been bouncing around departure lounges since August. This was their 14th Test since early June. Perhaps that is why, from the outset, Ireland passed up shots on goal in favour of going to touch and forcing their opponents to defend without rest.
Three times in the opening 12 minutes the hosts chose the corner instead of the sticks. By the time we got to the hour mark however they looked like they would gladly settle for a shot on goal. The alarm had been set with a lovely set piece try for Dane Haylett-Petty just before the break, giving the Aussies a sniff at 17-7, and then they set about an Ireland side who came out for the second half with a makeshift back line.
Yet Ireland, as they had done in Chicago three weeks ago, rallied with a try when they needed it most. When Keith Earls got over in the corner on 66 minutes, to put his side 27-24 ahead, we did not think it would be the last score. The tension was palpable as both sides put bodies on the line trying to change that picture.
For Ireland it was an appealing vista for almost all of the first half. Dean Mumm’s yellow card for tipping Tadhg Furlong when cleaning him out was -crucial. Ireland took immediate advantage, going to touch, mauling for 30 metres and then shifting wide, where a lovely little combination between Earls and Iain Henderson enabled the lock to get over from 20 metres. Jackson’s conversion put the home team 10-0 in front.
By the half-hour mark Michael Cheika had lots to worry about: the scoreline, the penalty count (6-1 in Ireland’s favour; it would be 13-3 by the finish); and two choke tackles conceded, which killed momentum. The scrum was also beginning to lean in favour of Ireland.
Constantly Ireland were looking to get the ball out the back and motor down the wide channel. Mostly this involved Andrew Trimble, who for all his qual-ities lacks the gas to scare opponents at this level. He hobbled off on 31 minutes, which meant Joey Carbery slotted in at full-back with Zebo shifting to the wing.
Even when things went wrong for Ireland, they went right. When they put their fourth kickable penalty to touch, and botched the lineout, Ringrose managed to scoop up the loose ball and with a great finish evade Mumm – back on the field a matter of seconds – to touch down: the conversion made it 17-0.
Had it stayed that way until the break it would have completed as good a 40 minutes as Ireland have produced, anywhere, anytime. The gloss was taken off it, however, in the 40th minute, when a horrible kick from Jackson gave the Wallabies a decent platform 40 metres out, and from there they produced a lovely set piece move to put Haylett-Petty over by the posts. A scoreline of 17-7 had an altogether different feel to it.
Kieran Marmion did well to interrupt a certain-looking try for Henry Speight a couple of minutes into the second half, but a few minutes later the Wallabies were over in the same spot through Tevita Kuridrani. Lovely hands, lovely try. With Foley’s conversion, a three-point game.
Jackson pulled three back for Ireland but on 57 minutes Foley was standing over another conversion; this time the replacement Sefanaia Naivalu scored out wide within a minute of coming on. The Aussies were a point ahead and Foley made it four with a penalty on the hour.
But when they needed it most, Ireland managed that lovely try for Earls on 66 minutes and Jackson converted to put his team 27-24 in front. Remarkably it stayed that way until the finish, an appropriate tribute to Rory Best on the hooker’s 100th cap. The captain has rarely been better. And neither have his team.