Australia 22-15 Ireland, Brisbane, June 26
A missed opportunity
June 26, 2010
Elusive Wallabies fly-half Quade Cooper stretches the Irish defence © Getty Images
Ireland's defeat at the hands of Australia in Brisbane represents a major missed opportunity for coach Declan Kidney and his charges, with their latest tour loss largely of their own making.
They entered the clash reeling from a mauling at the hands of the All Blacks and a demoralising defeat for the second string at the hands of the New Zealand Maori - add in the Six Nations reverse to the Scots and the warm-up loss to the Barbarians and the picture was even bleaker. But in the face of cold hard facts they rallied themselves to the brink of a much-needed win only to contribute to their own downfall with a series of costly errors and a failure to front up against an under-fire Wallabies pack. Ireland did not deserve the win but could so easily have been celebrating a famous result that would have catapulted them into Rugby World Cup year.
With these sides not slated to meet again until their Pool C clash in Auckland next year, the game at Suncorp Stadium - where an amazing number of Irish fans flocked in hope of an upset - was the perfect chance to deliver a psychological blow that would have also ended a drought on southern hemisphere soil dating way back to 1979. A Wallabies side hammered in the headlines in the wake of their loss to England last time out and desperately short of experience up front were ripe for the taking but to their immense credit they outplayed Ireland - who were not exactly laden with Test veterans in the pack - at the set-piece, dominating the scrum and the lineout.
But the Wallabies' indiscipline still afforded the Irish a raft of penalties that the increasingly-assured Jonathan Sexton slotted from all angles. Sadly his team-mates lacked the same kind of precision. The usually reliable Brian O'Driscoll struggled to hold on to the ball let alone deliver his game-changing best but he was not the only one guilty of errors. Debutant No.8 Chris Henry will have learned a valuable lesson on his international bow about knowing when to keep hold of the ball and when to force it after gifting Wallabies scrum-half Luke Burgess a score.
There were also shortcomings in defence with the magician that is Wallabies fly-half Quade Cooper ghosting through all too easily for his try, but to be fair to the Irish they are not the first and they will not be the last to be out-foxed by the immensely talented playmaker.
On the plus side, Kidney can take heart from the strength in depth evidently available to him and the new faces will benefit in terms of the experience. But imagine the feel-good factor had they returned to winning ways in their last bow of the season. Instead they face a period of intense reflection just a year or so since Irish rugby appeared to be on top of the world having captured the Six Nations Grand Slam, the Heineken Cup crown, the Magners League title and provided the bulk of the Lions squad that narrowly went down to the Springboks. Time is on Kidney's side but the clock is ticking and there is plenty of work to do.
His Australian counterpart Robbie Deans will be breathing a little easier this evening after his side rescued their own season with scribes queuing up to write it off before it had really begun. But there remain plenty of question marks surrounding his side following their latest error-ridden performance. His lack of options up front was highlighted in the two-Test series against England but the likes of Ben Daley, Saia Faingaa and Salesi Ma'afu appear to be fast learners having helped outmuscle their Irish rivals. The All Blacks and Springboks will be a huge step up but it is a challenge they will meet - if the Wallabies' injury woes continue - head on with renewed confidence on the back of this clash.
But it appears to be a case of give and take for the Wallabies with his usual effervescent backline suffering one of their more forgettable days. Centre Matt Giteau was notable by his absence from proceedings for much of the game after missing an early chance to erase the memory of his shocking miss against England in Sydney. Winger Drew Mitchell appeared hungry for the ball as he looked to answer his own critics who suggested his place was under threat but sadly he could not hold on to it for long with a series of handling errors blighting his game.
It was left to Cooper to further his own reputation with another pivotal display at fly-half. His kicking game may not be the finished article but his multi-dimensional approach with ball in hand is priceless. With Cooper in their ranks they always look dangerous and such are his talents that he can carry those around him to a certain extent. His side as a whole still lacked the intensity that was also missing in Sydney and the captain Rocky Elsom - himself struggling to recapture the outstanding of 2009 - cut a glum figure at the final whistle, all too aware of the work that is required if they are to give New Zealand and South Africa a run for their money.
An entertaining and competitive clash, this match was arguably the pick of the recent internationals but its crowd-pleasing nature will be of little comfort to Kidney and Deans or their players. If they have not addressed their shortcomings come a year or so from now their meeting will be no more than a sideshow at the sport's showpiece.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.