Five things we learned from Ireland's series win in Australia
Schmidt has blooded several players and introduced depth to the squad
Peter O’Mahony holding aloft the trophy after Ireland won the test series against Australia in Sydney. Photograph: Reuters
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have enjoyed a remarkable season, stockpiling a Triple Crown, Grand Slam, Six Nations Championship and a 2-1 series victory over Australia for only the second time in their history and in doing so bridging a 39-year gap.
They have won 10 of 11 test matches, triumphing in the Stade de France, Twickenham, Melbourne and Sydney, while also recording a record 38-3 victory over South Africa in the Aviva stadium.
In undertaking this stunning sequence of results there has been a developmental element too, with Schmidt blooding several new players – Bundee Aki (South Africa), Darren Sweetnam (South Africa), Chris Farrell (Fiji), Adam Byrne (Argentina), Jordan Larmour (Italy) and Tadhg Beirne (Australia, second test) all made their respective test debuts this season – and introducing depth to the squad across a variety of positions.
There are obvious areas in which Ireland can and will certainly seek to improve ahead of the 2019 World Cup in Japan to take a mid-range benchmark but it would be churlish not to acknowledge a superb season.
It’s particularly relevant when considering the manner of some of the wins, Johnny Sexton’s drop goal in Paris, Jacob Stockdale’s intercept try against Wales, and the collective resilience in the final throes of the third test against Australia when an Ireland team running on fumes after a long arduous season showed great resilience to hang in there as the Wallabies threatened to snatch victory. This Irish squad has developed a knack of winning tight matches, a priceless asset.
Placing to one side for the moment any argument over the aesthetics of performances, Schmidt’s attention to detail in preparing the team for specific match assignments, his ability to tease out weaknesses in the opposition, and an ability to rotate personnel without compromising the competitiveness of the collective has been striking over the three-test series in Australia.
The system, or parameters of play, remains the key as every Irish player appreciates the minutiae of their respective roles and that personnel are interchangeable. When the pressure is at its zenith Ireland take refuge in structure; it has served them well for the most part. Examine the quality of Rob Herring’s contribution, for example, or the continuing development of Jordan Larmour when thrust into the action because of injury and his growing maturity in the environment.
Every system needs to evolve and be refined, and Ireland’s is no different but as a framework it’s both durable and successful.
At face value Ireland conceded more penalties in the three-test series against Australia (35) than they did in five matches en route to winning the Grand Slam and Six Nations Championship (34). The Irish side were penalised 11 times in the first test, 12 in the second, and 12 in the third – three players received yellow cards – against the Wallabies, as opposed to six against France, Italy (three), Wales (four), Scotland (nine) and England (12) in the Six Nations.
The most relevant aspect of those statistics when weighing them in the context of a World Cup in Japan is to focus on the away matches, and an issue for Schmidt is that the Sydney test was the fourth match in a row that Ireland have conceded double figures; only in Paris did the team manage to keep the penalty count in single digits. The wildly incongruous officiating in Australia was a factor, but it’s certainly an area in which the Irish team needs to improve.
Territory and possession
One perceived weakness is that Ireland dominate significantly in terms of the possession and territory categories in most matches in recent times but that ascendancy is not always reflected on the scoreboard. There’s no doubt that there is more than a grain of truth to the assertion but not without context. In six of Ireland’s eight test matches this year Schmidt’s side have controlled the figures in both categories but in two of the most important games they didn’t.
In a 24-15 win at Twickenham the Irish team played second fiddle to their hosts in both categories, and the same was also the case last Saturday in Sydney, a game won by Ireland 20-16 when the Wallabies were very much on top in the possession (53%/47%) and territory (53%/47%) stakes. Conversely, in the first test Ireland lorded possession (60%/40%) and territory (61%/39%) yet still lost 18-9 so statistics without context can be misleading.
Ireland need to up their conversion rate from opportunities created to chances taken, particularly in the opposition 22, when the team occasionally gets narrow in focus rather than appreciating that the space is out wide and trusting hands to complete the task. There is also a balance to be struck in understanding when there is scope to offload and support rather than take contact. The first is a slight change in mindset, the second a tweak.
Competition for places
The incremental increase in the depth of the Irish squad is another plus point in the season. There is a genuine selection debate for more than two-thirds of the places on the team, and while the halfbacks Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray remain if not quite irreplaceable then pivotal, there is genuine competition virtually everywhere else.
Consider the excellent performances of Ireland captain Rory Best through the Six Nations and how his absence from the tour might have impacted. Then look at how Herring and Niall Scannell have stepped up when given the chance.
It’s been some season, and one that deserves to be celebrated.