Rugby World Cup 2003
Ireland narrowly miss out against Wallabies
Huw Richards reports for Scrum
November 1, 2003
Brian O'Driscoll reaches for the corner to round off a stunning try
© Getty Images
South African referee Jonathan Kaplan will never speak truer words if he lives to be 100. At a break during the ferociously contested second half his guttural tones came loud and clear over the referee's microphone: 'This is real test rugby."
Indeed it was. For the second week running Ireland were party to a single-point thriller. They won, it must be said, the one that really mattered since defeat by Argentina would have led to elimination. If they'd won here in the best match this World Cup has seen so far they'd have been confident of seeing off Scotland to reach the semi-finals. Defeat pitches them against the French here in Melbourne Ð and while France have looked terrific since getting to Australia, Ireland have beaten them three times in the last four years.
Ireland came desperately close to inflicting Australia's first World Cup defeat since Rob Andrew's drop goal in 1995. And they'll go in against the French with renewed confidence because Brian O'Driscoll, who had done little so far in this World Cup, confirmed the thoughtful Australian Elton Flatley's theory that it was only a matter of time before he exploded back onto the scene.
It happened in the 48th minute, with Australia leading 14-6. The Wallabies had earlier made good use of the quickly taken line-out to negate Ireland's long line-kicking, but this time got into trouble as Joe Roff knocked on near his own posts. Twice the scrum had to be reset and referee Paddy O'Brien warned props John Hayes and Bill Young that they were living dangerously. After a series of surges Ireland worked the ball left, replacement wing John Kelly did remarkably well to hold a wild pass and ship on to O'Driscoll, in very little space on the left-hand touchline.
It is hard to think of another player - with the possible exception of England's Jason Robinson - who could have scored from his position. O'Driscoll found space where none apparently existed, shimmying away from one tackler then diving for the line - arcing his body so that he both evaded a flying challenger and touched down left-handed, milliseconds before he hit the cornerflag. After an excruciating pause, video referee Nigel Whitehouse confirmed the score, Ronan O'Gara kicked a superb conversion and Ireland were back within a point.
Australia responded positively, swinging into attack immediately and forcing a penalty which Flatley converted. But the rest - and with 10 minutes of injury-time there was to be more than half an hour of it - Êwas Ireland. Shane Horgan went desperately close, just failing to hold a looping cross-kick from O'Gara as he soared above Australian defenders, Keith Wood drove for the line like a bald torpedo and there were long periods when the world champions were pinned deep into their own territory.
There was, though, only one more score as Australia defended with characteristic organisation and resource. O'Driscoll - who else - drilled a magnificent drop-goal after 67 minutes to cut the gap to a point. David Humphreys, who replaced O'Gara for the last 10 minutes, saw a 45-yard drop curl just wide with five minutes to go, while Ireland will probably look to before O'Driscoll's drop and a scrum where magnificent Wallaby flanker George Smith showed his talent for snaffling the vital turnover as they drove towards the Australian line.
Australia had started superbly, leading by eight points inside 12 minutes as George Gregan landed only the third drop-goal of his long international career, then sustained pressure created a large overlap for Roff to unselfishly send Smith over on the left.
But, taking their cue from the magnificent Wood, Ireland refused to buckle and instead fought their way back into contention. O'Gara landed two penalties to Flatley's one before the break, when Australia led 11-6. Flatley kicked his second goal three minutes after half-time, but then came O'Driscoll.