November saw Ireland take on South Africa, Georgia and Australia over three consecutive weekends in the Aviva stadium.
Coming into the series Irish coach Joe Schmidt biggest concern would have undoubtedly been the list of players who would be unavailable. Cian Healy, Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy, Sean O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald (only returning to Leinster), Dave Kearney, Luke Marshall, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden were all ruled out of the entire series. In the week before the first test, Irish front row options were further depleted with the news that Nathan White (forearm) and James Cronin (ankle) as well as flanker Chris Henry were all ruled out of contention. Rory Best (calf) also missed game one and two against the Boks and Georgia. Schmidt admitted the extensive list was “frustrating” but Ireland would just have to do without.
Game One: South Africa
The Bok dominated large parts of the first half in terms of possession and territory as the hosts struggled to wriggle free from their South African counterparts. Even with all this sustained pressure Ireland led 6-3 at half time. Although leading at the break, there was a real feel Ireland would suffer a slow death at the hands of the imposing Springbok pack who would eventually ware them out.
What it would be like to be a fly on the wall at half time in the home changing room. Ireland, with Schmidt’s analysis ringing in their ears started the second forty emphatically. Pressure on South African fullback Willie le Roux forced a lineout five metres out from the Springbok line. The ball was taken at the front, away from thieves Matfield and Etzebeth and after some miscommunication with scrum half Francois Hougaard, the Bok pack parted like the Red Sea for Rhys Ruddock to canter in!
Rhys Ruddock scored a well worked try against South Africa after Ireland mauled from a lineout
The real turning point of the game came less than 10 minutes before full time. The game, still in the balance, looked like it could go either way. Jonathan Sexton sliced straight through the Springbok line from a scrum after inexperienced sub scrum half Cobus Reinach showed the Lions pivot too much space. He was hauled down by the covering defence but Ireland were on the front foot and the damage had been done. Instead of continuing the attack down the left side where the Springbok’s were now desperately trying to cover, Conor Murray turned and chipped the ball over everyone to the right hand side in what was very French esq in its flair. Although Habana tried desperately in vein to back track and cover his wing, Tommy Bowe had the pace to gather the ball and dot it down. The killer blow was dealt.
What was so pleasing about the win was it was exactly the fixture Ireland would have lost a couple of seasons ago. An extensive Injury list, mixed domestic form and short preparation time, Ireland would previously have suffered that slow death that seemed inevitable at half time. Instead, their defence was incredible and they took their chances when they came.
Game Two: Georgia
The starting XV saw 13 changes with only Simon Zebo and Mike Ross being retained. Flanker Dominic Ryan and second row Dave Foley made their debuts while Ian Madigan got a run at ten.
Simon Zebo kept his place in the starting XV against Georgia
The game was slow to start and credit must be given to the visitors, who, after all, are a tier three nation. They contested well in the scrum and looked dangerous when they put width on the ball with winger Sandro Todua getting involved early. Leading 9-0 at half time, Ireland wasted little time in the second forty as Dave Kilcoyne scored a well worked try. From there the tries came at regular intervals until the final score read Ireland 49-7 Georgia. Job done!
Dave Kilcoyne had a good game for Ireland against a physically tough Georgian pack
It is hard to quantify the win against Georgia, especially when they were missing their talisman Mamuka Gorgodze – arguably one of the form players north of the equator for the last number of seasons. However, it is pleasing that Ireland, with a second string team, won as comfortably as they did. It was refreshing seeing some fringe players getting a run out with many putting their hand up for inclusion further down the track.
Game Three: Australia
As expected, Ireland changed personal again for the third and final match with Australia coming to town. The Wallabies arrived in Dublin after a narrow loss to the French in Paris a week before and would be looking to bounce back. Ireland on the other hand were on a high after their recent good form and looked to finish the series with a clean sweep.
Front line players Paul O’Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney were all recalled while Rory best made his first start of the campaign.
Ireland recalled many front line players for the clash with Australia including Paul O’Connell, Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney
If the previous two games were slow to start this one was certainly not. With only twelve minutes gone on the clock, Jonathan Sexton kicked an inch perfect cross field that bounced up nicely for Simon Zebo to run onto and over for a great try. Three minutes later and Australia looked certain to respond with a five pointer having a three man overlap only metres from the Irish line. However Tommy Bowe intercepted it and ran from coast to coast for Ireland’s second. The Wallabies were never going to go down that easily however and responded with three tries, two from scrum half Nick Phipps.
Ireland started really strongly against Australia when Zebo crossed for one of the tries of the series.
Having clawed their way back from 17-0 down, Australia certainly had the players to go on and win. At 20-20 at half time, the feel at the interval was similar to the one against the Boks two weeks previously where it could go either way.
Sexton kicked two penalties to the Wallabies one in the second half and that was the difference in the end. Ireland won 26-23 in what was one of the best internationals of the year.
Highlight of the Series
While three wins from three is the obvious talking point there is more to the series than just that, three victories. Coming in to the series, Schmidt admitted the high casualty rate was frustrating but assured all that the best possible preparation had taken place (under the circumstances). Of course beating two top nations in South Africa (who four weeks previously beat the All Blacks) and Australia is a major highlight and imperative at this stage if Ireland are serious about aspirations at next year’s World Cup. But the biggest highlight of the series has to be the Squad that Ireland now possess. With the injury list as big as it was, many wrote Ireland off before a ball was even kicked. Take Jack McGrath for example and the opposition he came up against. Rhys Ruddock, who presumably is third choice openside after Sean O’Brien and Chris Henry was one of the players of the series. Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne showed that the future is bright and that there is life after Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy (the latter still has a huge role to play). Sean Cronin was robust and effective in the loose and it was good to see Richardt Strauss back on the pitch. Simon Zebo too had a very strong campaign in a position which Schmidt has so many options when one considers Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls are still to return. The list goes on, but the message is simple. Ireland now have an extensive squad rather than a team. This was Ireland’s biggest problem in years past, a couple of injuries and we would be unable to sit at the top table of world rugby. This has certainly changed and is most pleasing to see.
Squad effort! Players such as jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, and Rhys Ruddock played huge roles in Ireland’s success
Try of the Series
There are definitely a few contenders for this one. Felix Jones second try against Georgia was special as Ireland ran 80 metres before the Munster man crossed over. Simon Zebo’s finish against the Wallabies after only 12 minutes got the crowd on their feet and Ireland off to the start they needed and too deserves a mention. However, it is hard to look past Tommy Bowe’s effort against South Africa that put the hosts out of sight. The timing, the execution and the finish were all perfect and the Aviva Stadium hasn’t had that type of excitement for some time. In what will surely be an iconic picture in time to come, was not too dissimilar to Shane Horgan’s effort against England in Croke Park in 2009.
Player of the Series
It’s hard to pick out a single player over the three games. Paul O’Connell was fantastic in game one and three, proving he is undoubtedly the man to lead Ireland into next year’s World Cup in England. Jonathan Sexton too was instrumental in Ireland’s first back to back scalps over top southern hemisphere opposition since 2006. Rhys Ruddock was outstanding especially when one considers he only got the nod to start against South Africa on the day of the test. While he is not a ‘player’ in the traditional sense, Joe Schmidt gets the accolade from us as he is certainly a major player in Ireland’s success. His ability to pick not only a team but also a game plan for each opposition and implement that plan to pin point accuracy has been key to Ireland’s recent success. The best teams in the world don’t play this way or that way. The best teams in the world have a game plan every time they take the field and if it’s not working they change that plan to suit the conditions. It’s no wonder Irelands head coach comes from the land of the long white cloud. Integral to New Zealand’s long success has been their ability, amongst other things, to adapt to their opposition and find a chink in their armour. While of course the players on the pitch are the ones who will ultimately win or lose a game, in Schmidt Ireland have the best coach in the world and as a result, is our ‘player’ of the series. Special mentions too for South African number eight Duane Vermeulen, Georgian left wing Sandro Todua and number eight Dimitri Basilaia as well as Wallaby inside centre Matt Toomua.
Worth a mention: Duane Vermeulen, Dimitri Basilaia & Matt Toomua
Ireland open their defence of the RBS Six Nations away to Italy in Rome on Saturday 7th February. While of course Ireland will expect to win this fixture, it could become a potential banana skin for Paul O’Connell and his men as Rome is not an easy venue for any team. Ireland welcome France to the Aviva a week later before England come to Dublin at the end of February. After a week break Ireland are away to Wales in Cardiff before finishing off in Edinburgh against a vastly improved Scotland on Saturday 21st March.
If the Six Nations wasn’t hard enough, this will be one of the last opportunities for teams before the Rugby World Cup in October 2015. Having both England and France at home is always hugely beneficial as both Twickenham and the Stade de France are both notoriously difficult places to visit. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, victory against either or even both will need performances of the highest order. The French encounter will have an added dimension as it will serve as a warm up to the crunch pool D fixture come the World Cup.
Away in Cardiff is a really tough assignment, even if the Welsh are off form like they have been in recent times. Scotland away is also a potential sticky match with new head coach Vern Cotter, Schmidt’s former partner at Clermont, bringing Scotland to a new level with a much more expansive game.
While the Six Nations is as tough as it has ever been, Ireland have the ability to do what no other Irish team has and retain the Six Nations.
Rugby World Cup 2015
Ireland are drawn in Pool D with France, Italy, Canada and Romania. The French encounter in Cardiff on 11th October will surely decide the group. A victory against les bleus (and presumably everyone else) would ensure a quarter final with Argentina probably the opposition. If Ireland were to win that they would most likely play England in the semi-final. Failure to beat the French though would mean a quarter final against New Zealand. Although Ireland came within 30 seconds of beating the All Blacks last November, to go on and win a quarter final would be a massive ask. Not that this current crop couldn’t do it, they have shown with recent form they are amongst the best in the world. Route one (beating the French and topping the group) is the obvious aim for Schmidt’s men and could go a long way in deciding how successful the tournament is from an Irish perspective.
Ireland’s success at the Rugby World Cup will come down to the pool match against France