18 November 2013

Nobody saw this coming

Nobody, not even the bookies, predicted the scale of Australia’s defeat of Ireland last Saturday. A points difference of seventeen camouflages the extent to which the Wallabies dominated the game. The try count of 4-0 gives a better indication of the difference between the teams.

It wasn’t like Ireland were starved of possession or territory, in fact Ireland had 64% possession and 63% territory. We just lacked any penetration when we had the ball and couldn’t break Australia down. Australia’s discipline was dreadful throughout. They conceded fifteen penalties, which resulted in them finishing the final ten minutes of both halves with fourteen men.

On an average day, fifteen penalties is normally a recipe for defeat. But Ireland couldn’t take advantage to cross the whitewash and all Ireland’s points came from the boots of Sexton and Madigan.

There were mainly two reasons Ireland failed to cause Australia problems on offence. The first reason was sixteen turnovers, which undid what was at times good work with the ball. We had twelve line breaks, twice as many as Australia and with sixteen defenders beaten we were one better than the opposition. But we were unable to capitalise on those moments and that lack of accuracy will frustrate Joe Schmidt immensely. Mainly because it was an issue last week against Samoa and something they had targeted to repair before the weekend.

The second reason our attack failed to fire was down to Australia. They definitely had their homework done on Ireland’s attack and shut us down reasonably comfortably throughout the game. They obviously targeted our main ball carriers: O’Brien, O’Mahony, Heaslip and Healy.

Between them they carried the ball on forty-one occasions, which is a decent volume of work. But all those carries only amounted to a total gain of forty-five meters, approximately an average of one meter per carry. Which is a poor return for all that work and a sign that Australia successfully stymied our “go-forward” by having strong tacklers in place to meet us head-on. By comparison Fergus McFadden carried the ball over one hundred and thirty meters on his own. That puts the combined success of the back-row and Cian Healy into context.

In attack when Ireland’s “go-forward” dried up, like last week against Samoa, we took to kicking the ball loosely to Australia. But Israel Folau was majestic under the high ball and unfortunately Ireland continually kicked the ball down his throat. Again it was an area of their game Ireland vowed to straighten out before Saturday. It is still a concern going onto next weekend’s game.

Australia’s indiscipline was the mechanism that kept the scoreboard ticking over for Ireland. When Jonathan Sexton kicked Ireland to within three points just on halftime we were back in the game with everything to play for. A deficit of 12 – 15 after a horrible first quarter didn’t look so bad and it seemed that an Irish resurgence was on the cards.

But like the first half, Australia scored two tries in the second half and killed the game off with fifteen minutes still on the clock. Similar to our lack of penetration in attack, the ease at which Australia broke down our defence is also a concern.

Our problems defending the outside channels, which emerged against Samoa, were still evident last Saturday. The difference between Australia and Samoa was the Wallabies were much more accurate at exploiting their advantage out wide. The first two tries looked like they came from a well-rehearsed pattern of attack, as the Wallabies exploited the narrowness of Ireland’s defence.

Ironically, that pattern Australia used to attack Ireland was very similar to the much discussed pattern instigated by Rob Penney with Munster.

If the first two Australian tries looked like they came off the training field, the two tries in the second half had definitely been rehearsed many times in training. Quade Cooper’s try was a set play from a scrum where Luke Marshall was isolated one-on-one with Cooper. Marshall hesitated and before he could adjust Cooper had sliced through beside the posts. The second try was a rolling maul from a line-out and it is the first time in quite a while Ireland have conceded a try of that nature.

Teams hate conceding tries from set piece because when it is pack against pack and back-line against back-line, players believe they have the wherewithal to stop the opposition. For that reason, the two second half tries will have stung Ireland even more than the tries conceded in the first half.

The line-out was solid after a shaky start. Although one crucial line-out did go astray in the second half when Ireland turned down what seemed a banker three points and put the ball in the corner. What was probably more concerning was the way the Irish scrum seemed to disintegrate near the end of the game, particularly when up against seven Australian forwards. At that point the reserves were packing down in the front-row.

But overall the presumed advantage in the scrum never accrued for Ireland at any point in the game. Although the referee, Chris Pollock, seemed to struggle at the scrum throughout the game and neither pack looked settled at any point. It probably suited Australia more than Ireland that a fair bit of confusion surrounded scrum time.

Despite that, based on our performance in the scrum, it is almost certain that next week New Zealand will attack us there.

It was hoped that after last week’s performance against Samoa Ireland would take another step forward against Australia. By any assessment that advance has not materialised.

It was always going to be an uphill battle to beat New Zealand for the first time in our history. After the Australian game that hill just got a lot steeper.