Irish fault lines well and truly exposed by Australia’s seismic performance
Scale of defeat highlights size of task facing Joe Schmidt
Ireland’s Fergus McFadden is tackled by Australia’s Michael Hooper during the Guinness Series match at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
As reality checks go this was pretty sobering, to put it mildly. Ireland were beaten out the gate by a Wallabies side which was superior in every single department, even the scrums, and about the only source of consolation is that the Australians are ten games into reaping the benefits of Ewen McKenzie’s revolution, whereas Ireland are only two games into the Joe Schmidt reign.
The scale of this defeat certainly underlined the task facing Schmidt. Whereas Ireland retained 11 of the side that beat Australia, the latter had only four, and their turnover in personnel underlines their superior strength in depth as well as suggesting the Wallabies are in a much more advanced state at this mid-way point in a World Cup cycle.
Ireland’s vintage veterans, it has to be said, looked a little tired, be it Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell or Mike Ross, with the latter suffering an ignominious afternoon against James Slipper and co for whatever reason against a revitalised Wallabies’ scrum, which enjoyed a rare afternoon of supremacy. It would have yielded six points instead of three had Quade Cooper not missed one kickable penalty but its psychological impact was seismic.
It was also a modicum of comfort to hear Ben Mowen describe this as Australia’s most complete performance of the season. Four tries to nil, despite playing 17 minutes of the game with 14 men (ten of those minutes without two try-scoring, breakdown master and Man of the Match Michael Hooper) brooks little argument.
Hooper’s decision-making about when to contest and his execution, be it positioning himself over the ball or counter-rucking, provided another master-class. He was almost unpunished again, although ironically his failure to roll away after Fergus McFadden’s counter led to a yellow card for repeated Wallabies’ slowing or killing of Irish ruck ball – one deliberate knock-on by Scott Fardy and some tugging off the ball by Tevita Kuridrani also going unpunished.
Ireland didn’t help their cause with inaccuracies from the start – such as Johnny Sexton’s missed penalty to touch and two poorly controlled lineouts. About their only period of credit was the second quarter when dragging themselves back into the match and reducing Australia’s early 12 point lead to three. Recycling was also a whole lot easier without Hooper on the pitch.
However, it’s difficult to see how things would have panned much differently given so many fault lines in the Irish display. For an Irish side taking on one of the mighty southern hemisphere trio in Lansdowne Road, there was a surprising lack of aggression and intensity in the home display. This was most evident in a strangely passive defence, which was also too narrow, indecisive and confused. Hence the utter ease with which the Wallabies exposed defensive misreads akin to last week against Samoa.
So aware were Ireland of the threat provided by Cooper’s dancing feet and passing and offloading that the defence seemed to freeze on the spot, and the way he punishes any lack of defensive cohesion to pick out holes for his runners is truly intuitive. Witness the opening Nick Cummins try, littered with Irish miss-reads.
After returning a long 22 restart by using the width of the pitch to go through four phases against a passive defence, Cooper looped around Scott Fardy and ran across field. Ireland were four on four, but O’Driscoll came out of the line side-on to leave a hole which Stephen Moore straightened through and offloaded to Cummins, who stepped inside Eoin Reddan and Rob Kearney with embarrassing ease as the scrumhalf showed him too much of the inside.
McFadden played with vim and vigour, running hard and even finding the odd gap, although his poor return kick was the launching pad for the second try after Cooper had deftly put the ball in behind Tommy Bowe. Again the Irish defence was too narrow to leave them two men down as Scott Fardy reprised Stephen Moore’s line onto Matt Toomua’s pass to escape Peter O’Mahony’s clutches and offload inside for Hooper to evade the clutches of Robbie Henshaw.
It was just ridiculously easy, and after Ireland’s second quarter rally, Cooper effectively put the game to bed within six minutes of the restart when again transfixing the Irish defence and using his array of runners to straighten through a yawning gap between Ian Madigan and Luke Marshall. That was Marshall’s nadir, but he did many things well, not least three line breaks and a couple of fine passes to release his wingers off either hand. As with McFadden’s bursts though, again no support.
An 11-man lineout, which the Wallabies had tried against Italy, afforded Hooper his second try, after Ireland themselves had eschewed a three-pointer with 20 minutes to go. That, remarkably, could have made it a one-score game only for O’Connell to lose control of the ball after taking Rory Best’s throw.
With the honourable exception of Cian Healy, one could hardly recall one effective shooter, one big hit to galvanise team and crowd alike. It was as if, after all the cramming for an exam, their heads were too full of information.
It was not a dissimilar scenario in the attack. Again, like last week, Ireland kicked away possession profligately and often ill-advisedly given it was generally in the direction of the aerially supreme Israel Folau. Save for Seán O’Brien, there was a lack of hard direct target runners, of straight running, as if, again, their heads were thinking a few phases ahead. O’Mahony managed a couple of good offloads but was perhaps a little dazed, while one can rarely recall Jamie Heaslip having such a quiet game.
It was all a little too cerebral maybe, without the requisite aggression. If there’s one consolation, better it happened now than further down the track.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 9 mins: Cooper pen 0-3; 12 mins Sexton pen 3-3; 18: Cummins try, Cooper con 3-10; 24: Hooper try, Cooper con 3-15; 30: Sexton pen 6-15; 34: Sexton pen 9-15; 40: Sexton pen 12-15; (half-time 12-15); 46: Cooper try and con 12-22; 50: Cooper pen 12-25; 57: Madigan pen 15-25; 67: Hooper try, Cooper con 15-32.
IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ulster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), L Marshall (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing Metro), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), P O’Connell (Munster, c), P O’Mahony (Munster), S O’Brien (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: R Henshaw (Connacht) for O’Driscoll (22-30 mins) and for Kearney (74 mins), I Madigan (Leinster) for Sexton (half-time), C Murray (Munster) for Reddan (57 mins), S Cronin (Leinster) for Best, S Archer (Munster) (both 66 mins), J McGrath (Leinster) for Healy, M McCarthy (Leinster) for Toner (both 70 mins), K McLaughlin (Leinster) for O’Brien (71 mins).
AUSTRALIA: I Folau (NSW Waratahs); A Ashley-Cooper (NSW Waratahs), T Kuridrani (Brumbies), M Toomua (Brumbies), N Cummins (Western Force); Q Cooper (Queensland Reds), W Genia (Queensland Reds); J Slipper (Queensland Reds), S Moore (Brumbies), S Kepu (NSW Waratahs), J Horwill (Queensland Reds), R Simmons (Queensland Reds), S Fardy ( Brumbies), M Hooper (NSW Waratahs), B Mowen ( Brumbies, c). Replacements: S Timani (NSW Waratahs) for Horwill (57 mins), J Tomane (Brumbies) for Ashley-Cooper (58 mins), P Ryan (NSW Waratahs) for Kepu, N White (Brumbies) for Genia (both 66 mins), T Polota-Nau (NSW Waratahs) for Moore, B Robinson (NSW Waratahs) for Slipper, C Leali’ifano (ACT Brumbies) for Cooper (all 69 mins), L Gill (Queensland Reds) for Hooper (73 mins). Sinbinned: Hooper (33-43 mins). Sent-off: Kuridrani (73 mins).
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand).