Ireland seal historic win after nail-biting encounter
Paul O'Connell (left) of Ireland celebrates victory with his team-mates after their 15-6 triumph over Australia at Eden Park, Auckland. - (Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Australia 6 Ireland 15: The rain bucketed down intermittently, the Irish scrum ground the Wallabies into the grass and a huge, colourful Irish crowd sang louder and louder as an epic night went on. This was better than Dublin, as a small part of New Zealand became Irish for the night and witnessed the single best performance and result of Ireland’s unfulfilling World Cup campaigns.
On a great night (or morning) to be Irish, this victory over the Tri-Nations champions was founded first and foremost on a monumental effort by the Irish pack, and especially an immense scrum and in the team’s collective work at the breakdown.
In both instances, the Wallabies weren’t helped by losing first, and especially, David Pocock, and then by hooker Stephen Moore, though it’s doubtful he would have saved them from their latest World Cup scrummaging embarrassment, where man-of-the-match Cian Healy gave Ben Alexander a torrid going over.
It was a night and occasion which demanded full-on physical commitment, primarily in the contact area and at the breakdown, where Ireland’s efficiency was light years removed from recent outings. But this was the same team, bar two, which derailed England last March and it is a big-game team, with the likes of Paul O’Connell and the immense Stephen Ferris leading the way, while Seán O’Brien’s influence grew more and more pronounced as the night wore on.
Australia’s World Cup campaign isn’t in tatters, but it is damaged. Topping the pool, seen as pre-ordained by their media since the draw was made, and having an ‘easier’ run to the final is now a forlorn hope. Roundly booed whenever in possession, Quade Cooper’s game was almost in as many tatters as their scrum by the end.
The near compulsory I Got A Feelin’ by the Black Eyed Peas set the mood amongst a high-spirited near 60,000 crowd of mostly Irish and Australians even better than the ‘anthems’, though it was a lustier Ireland’s Call than in Dublin.
When Keith Earls stepped over the touchline in receiving the kick-off it afforded Australia the early territory, before Ireland engineered one of their ‘choke tackle’ turnovers. Soon, Australia were counter-rucking for one of theirs. The die had been cast.
Australia drew first blood through James O’Connor’s close-range penalty after the frontrow went down in the scrum. This though, was light relief for Ireland after he had missed his first effort and Australia were then pressing underneath the Irish posts after Kurtley Beale had beaten Rob Kearney in the air to his own kick ahead.
Although Jonathan Sexton also missed his first penalty, and would also end the half with two from four, soon he drew the sides level after a clever line, half-break and offload by Rory Best to the supporting Brian O’Driscoll. A storming run by Tommy Bowe from the restart put Ireland on the front foot again, and a superb passage of effective, low, sharp clearing out through the phases led to a Sexton drop goal.
Best, Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell - all of whom were having big games - engineered another maul turnover, but after O’Connor levelled matters when Jamie Heaslip was penalised for hands in a ruck, the second quarter degenerated into a series of stoppages, re-set scrums, penalties and crooked throws. Indeed, Ireland had only two throws in the first half and lost both of them.
Moore’s absence, perhaps, partly explained why the Australian frontrow went down - amid clear signs that the Irish scrum was starting to get their measure - but as with O’Connor moments before, Sexton missed the chance to put his country in front.
Indeed, another scrum penalty ensued and, after more Irish pressure on an Aussie put-in, to the biggest roar of the half, Stephen ferris picked up Will Genia and frogmarched him backwards. The Wallabies stopped the Irish attack dead with some big hits, notably Pat McCabe on Keith Earls on the wraparound. So, a promising half petered out at six-all.
Ireland began the second half promisingly. The dangerman, O’Brien, was nearly away after a good offload by Ferris, and again on the cutback from D’Arcy after his backrow partner from Ulster had taken a shortened lineout up the middle. Reward came by way of Dan Vickerman’s eagerness before the ball was out, and Sexton, crucially, nailed the 35-metre penalty.
At the same time D’Arcy, troubled by an injury to his right thigh, went off to be replaced by Ronan O’Gara, with Sexton moving to inside centre. Alexander was promptly penalised for placing his hand on the ground as he and the Aussie scrum came under pressure again from Healy and co.
Alas, Sexton’s penalty hit the upright, and the ball bounced above the onrushing Brian O’Driscoll. It felt like a big moment. So too, mind, when the Wallabies cranked it up through the phases inside the Irish 22 for the first time since the opening onslaught, and Cooper threatened to get around O’Connell, but the big lock just did enough to force the forward offload.
As Ireland ambitiously moved it wide from their own line to put Bowe away, only for him to kick straight at Beale, the ensuing injury and scrummaging lulls scarcely dimmed the Irish crowd, who were becoming more and more vocal.
They were starting to believe, all the more so when O’Brien forced a spillage from Tatafu Polota Nau and Alexander crumpled again, enabling O’Gara to push Ireland 12-6 ahead.
Cooper, playing at fullback in defence, was targeted in the air once more, and was nowhere near Sexton’s towering up and under - admittedly when a little taken out by O’Driscoll - for Kearney to bravely reclaim the ball on the deck. Though Ireland lost the ball in the ensuing rumbles, the scrum again offered no relief for Australia. Down went Alexander again, up went Bryce Lawrence’s hand and O’Gara pushed Ireland two scores clear.
Australia, long since rattled, butchered a try when the anonymous Anthony Fainga’a missed a put-way pass to Pat McCabe, and Tommy Bowe nearly scored an 80-metre intercept when picking off Cooper’s behind-the-back one-handed pass - only to be caught by James O’Connor.
Conor Murray had an opportunist ‘try’ from another turnover ruled out for offside, so there was no five-pointer to grace the occasion. It didn’t matter one iota. One helluva an Irish/Kiwi party was already beginning.
Scoring sequence: 11 mins O’Connor pen 0-3; 15 mins Sexton pen 3-3; 18 mins Sexton drop goal 6-3; 24 mins O’Connor pen 6-6; (half-time 6-6); 49 mins Sexton pen 9-6; 62 mins O’Gara pen 12-6; 70 mins O’Gara pen 15-6.
Ireland: R Kearney Lansdowne/Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O’Driscoll (UCD/Leinster, capt), G D’Arcy (Lansdowne/Leinster), K Earls (Young Munster/Munster); J Sexton (St Mary’s College/Leinster), E Reddan (Lansdowne/Leinster); C Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), R Best (Banbridge/Ulster), M Ross (Clontarf/Leinster), D O’Callaghan (Cork Constitution/Munster), P O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster), S Ferris (Dungannon/Ulster), S O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster), J Heaslip (Naas/Leinster).
Replacements:R O’Gara (Cork Constitution/Munster) for D’Arcy (49 mins), C Murray (Garryowen/Munster) for Reddan (59 mins), A Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster) for O’Driscoll (59-62 mins) and for Kearney (74 mins), T Court (Malone/Ulster) for Ross ((77 mins).
Not used:S Cronin (Leinster), T Court (Malone/Ulster) for Ross ((77 mins), D Ryan (Shannon/Munster), D Leamy (Cork Constitution/Munster).
Australia: Kurtley Beale (NSW Waratahs); James O’Connor (Western Force), Anthony Fainga’a (Queensland Reds), Pat McCabe (Brumbies), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies); Quade Cooper (Queensland Reds), Will Genia (Queensland Reds); Sekope Kepu (NSW Waratahs), Tatafu Polota Nau (NSW Waratahs), Ben Alexander (Brumbies), Dan Vickerman (NSW Waratahs), James Horwill (Queensland Reds, captain), B McCalman (Western Foprce), Radike Samo (Queenlsand Reds).
Replacements: James Slipper (Queensland Reds) for Alexander, Rob Simmons (Queensland Reds) for Horwill (both 62 mins), Wycliff Palu (Waratahs) for Elsom (73 mins), Drew Mitchell (NSW Waratahs) for Fainga’a (78 mins).
Not used:Saia Fainga’a (Queensland Reds), Scott Higginbotham (Queensland Reds), Luke Burgess (NSW Waratahs).
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand).