Australia 16 Ireland 20
There was a time was when Ireland would put up the good fight but generally have their tummies tickled and yet fill the grounds and the bars. Model tourists really. Now, while still filling the grounds better than ever, the Ireland team is a high-achieving European benchmark who have just won a taut and thrilling series. Nice destination too. No wonder plans are afoot to do it all again in two years.
Of course, Saturday’s 20-16 win in Sydney and epic finale to a nerve-shredding first three-test tour to Australia couldn’t be straightforward. But at any rate the gallant loser days are no more, for now anyway. These players, and these coaches and the rest of the set-up, simply have a culture of winning. No matter what it takes they’ll get the job done, even when not playing especially well. Think Paris. Now add Sydney.
Akin to the Lions tour of New Zealand last summer, the series came down to one late call by the match officials, and whether Bernard Foley's final offload brushed off Jacob Stockdale's arm en route to the touchline. But "without clear and obvious evidence" it was the right call by TMO Ben Skeen. Also akin to that series, familiarity perhaps contributed to both teams negating each other's attack.
The first-half was a story of Irish dominance and two yellow cards. Ireland better managed their 10 minutes while down to 14 men due to the Stockdale's binning, winning theirs 3-0, and then made better use of the final play before Israel Folau's 10 minutes were up, when Sexton's restart and chase by Rob Kearney earned the penalty with which Sexton made it 12-9 at the break.
That little vignette was typical of how Sexton masterminded this win in his 49th test start for Ireland alongside Connor Murray. Physically bigger men, ideally suited to the modern game, they have probably now eclipsed even the great Peter Stringer-Ronan O'Gara combo as Ireland's best half-back pairing, matching them in Grand Slams but winning more titles and taking bigger scalps.
Sexton was at his spikey and feisty best (imagine him and Michael Cheika in the same coaches' box). His first involvement was actually a one-man counter-ruck! He varied his kicking game cleverly, finding green grass beyond Kurtley Beale with one lengthy touch-finder, cross-kicking to Keith Earls with another, later finding space in behind Nick Phipps to earn the first of two penalties which led to Ireland mauling over for their try.
Ditto his passing game, whether inside balls or outside passes to Robbie Henshaw from which Stockdale made his two biggest carries – the first another of those Joe Schmidt framed set-moves.
Following Stockdale's binning for supposedly leading with his forearm into Phipps, akin to a week before, Ireland simply rolled their sleeves up and got to work. For 10 minutes they mostly used one-off runners. Thanks to David Pocock's strength over the ball, one 17-phase passage came to nought, but it ate up 2½ minutes, and as they set about a reprise, Australia's discipline cracked when Pete Samu came through on Murray for Sexton to kick the penalty.
This was also a win for the pack, and notably the lineout and maul. Smarting from last week’s penalty try, three times the Irish pack repelled mauls when the Wallabies went to the corner, whereas when Ireland did so, and after a collapsed maul only merited a penalty, they translated their second drive into a try.
Impossible to defend
Niall Scannell's pinpoint throw looped over Izack Rodda to meet the airborne Jordi Murphy in perfect symmetry with the lift by Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong, before CJ Stander led the charge around the edge and was propelled over the line. Almost impossible to defend.
Take a bow Simon Easterby, and likewise Andy Farrell. Ireland's defence brought good line speed and executed their tackling with precision, notably James Ryan, Jack Conan, Stander and Bundee Aki. They also carried a truckload, with Aki adding a couple of clever offloads in traffic.
As energy levels understandably dipped and the scrum struggled, to win the last 25 minutes 3-0 was nothing short of remarkable. Jordan Larmour made a significant contribution in his latest incarnation as replacement full-back, and aside from his wondrous footwork his take in the air against Folau was the springboard for Sexton's key fifth penalty.
Sexton had carried into Pocock after previously slipping off a tackle on Samu Kerevi, and had been roughed up some, but he dusted himself off to nail a ballsy 45m penalty.
“That four-point margin was pretty precious,” admitted Schmidt. “A great kick from Johnny to extend it out from one point because we had to do a fair bit of defence with a one-point margin and then working our way back up the field earned a penalty and Johnny did the rest.
“I kind of felt that potentially we could have made a little bit more of the dominance we had in the first half but there were two defences out there that were making it very difficult. And last week when the maul was collapsed we got a penalty try against us, this week the maul was collapsed just before the goal-line and it was just a penalty.
“But what a call from the forwards, great work from Simon Easterby, to throw that deep to Jordi and be able to get that drive was absolutely super and so we capitalised on that. And then you think ‘wow, a 10-point margin’. That is such a luxury in this series but that didn’t last for too long either because they really started coming in waves.
“They’re the fine margins, we keep having them with Australia,” said Schmidt, in reference to four wins in the last five meetings, by three, three, five and four points.
It’s a saga that’s likely to run again.
Scoring sequence: 9 mins Sexton pen 0-3; 13 mins Foley pen 3-3; 22 mins Foley pen 6-3; 30 mins Sexton pen 6-6; 35 mins Sexton pen 6-9; 40 mins Foley pen 9-9; 40 (+3 mins) Sexton pen 9-12; (half-time 9-12); 44 mins Stander try 9-17; 55 mins Koroibete try, Foley con 16-17; 79 mins Sexton pen 16-20.
AUSTRALIA: Israel Folau (Waratahs); Marika Koroibete (Rebels), Samu Kerevi (Reds), Kurtley Beale (Waratahs), Dan Haylett-Petty (Rebels); Bernard Foley (Waratahs), Nick Phipps (Waratahs); Scott Sio (Brumbies), Brandon Paenga-Amosa (Reds), Sekope Kepu (Waratahs), Izack Rodda (Reds), Adam Coleman (Rebels), Lukhan Tui (Reds), Michael Hooper (Waratahs, capt), David Pocock (Brumbies).
Replacements: Pete Samu (Brumbies) for Hooper (17 mins), Tolu Latu (Waratahs) for Paenga-Amosa (half-time), Rob Simmons (Waratahs) for Coleman (45 mins), Taniela Tupou (Reds) for Kepu (56 mins), Tom Robertson (Waratahs) to Sio, Joe Powell (Waratahs) for Phipps, (both 61 mins), Reece Hodge (Rebels) for Koroibete (69 mins), Ned Hanigan (Waratahs) for Rodda (72 mins). Sinbinned: Folau (31-41 mins)
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Jack McGrath (Leinster), Niall Scannell (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Devin Toner (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster); Peter O'Mahony (Munster, capt), Jack Conan (Leinster).
Replacements: Jordi Murphy (Leinster) for O'Mahony (31 mins), Rob Herring (Ulster) for Scannell, Cian Healy (Leinster) for McGrath (both 56 mins), Jordan Larmour (Leinster) for Kearney (58 mins), John Ryan (Munster) for Furlong (67 mins), Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets) for Conan (69 mins). Not used: Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Ross Byrne (Leinster). Sinbinned: Stockdale (21-31 mins).
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (France).