Sexton masterclass in Melbourne helps Ireland draw level

Photo: Karen Watson

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Ireland underlined their status as world no.2 with an impressive 26-21 win over Australia in Melbourne on Saturday, taking the June series into a decisive third test in Sydney with their first victory Down Under in 39 years.

The loss also came at a heavy cost for the Wallabies, with scrumhalf Will Genia leaving the field just 27 minutes in with a broken arm.

Beaten 18-9 in Brisbane in game one, coach Joe Schmidt made eight changes to his starting XV, bringing back pivotal flyhalf Johnny Sexton and a host of experience in the forwards, and it told. Sexton was at his masterful best, slotting 16pts from the boot and controlling proceedings behind a pack that turned around their breakdown deficiencies from the first test, to help set a platform of dominant possession and territory.

Australia saw little ball all evening, the final figure of 43% somewhat flattering from the experience of your own eyes. But their cause certainly wasn’t helped by poor discipline, and a penalty count of 15 to seven that allowed Sexton to keep the scoreboard ticking over for the visitor’s, has to be addressed ahead of the Sydney decider.

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Clearly keen to click straight back into the electric attacking rhythm that caused Ireland problems the week before, the Wallabies came out of the blocks with rapier-like speed. And it paid immediate dividends, the visitor’s seemingly still with the anthem’s ringing around their heads as they sat on their heels for seven phases of lightning ball movement from the Aussie backs, before a scissors move from Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale scythed open a gap in the line for the inside centre to race through and under the posts.

Stung by the early reversal Ireland didn’t hold back from the restart, fulcrum Sexton calling the shots and manoeuvring his side into position in search of an immediate riposte. But before they had a chance to progress inside Australia’s 22, they were given a potentially greater reward when a lifting tackle from Marika Koroibete on Rob Kearney resulted in a yellow card.

Wallabies 2018

Ireland’s forwards ran hard all game – Photo: Karen Watson

Perhaps mindful of their try-less exploits in game one, and the reality that three-pointers were unlikely to win the day against the potent attack they were facing, Ireland went for the lineout instead of the posts. That decision gained instant vindication when an initial driving maul saw Australia going backwards, and the alert Conor Murray spotted space back on the short side to float a looping pass for Andrew Conway to dive for the corner.

Sexton added the extras, and when a seven-man Australian scrum coughed up a penalty within range, he didn’t hesitate to ask for the kicking tee again, and duly edged Ireland ahead 10-7 after 13 minutes. Beale’s quick-fire opening suddenly seemed a long time ago.

Good work at the breakdown by Peter O’Mahony then saw Caleb Timu pinged for holding on, and again, Sexton took the three on offer to keep punishing Koroibete’s indiscretion. When the Melbourne Rebels winger returned to the field on 17 minutes, his absence had contributed to 13 unanswered points. But momentum remained with the green machine despite the numerical parity, a deliberate knockdown from Timu allowing Sexton to make it 16-7 as the second quarter ticked over.

It was 23 minutes before the Wallabies were awarded a penalty, or more to the point, before Ireland conceded one. The visitor’s had clearly put some work into their discipline and aggression at the tackle contest in the preceding seven days, two areas of their game that have been pivotal to their rise up the world rankings, and which were strangely off-kilter in Brisbane. But the second penalty they conceded shortly after was an expensive one, as it left them standing under their own posts.

Starved of possession and territory since that early breakthrough, the Wallabies didn’t want to waste their opportunity when they got it. A lineout maul that looked to have been initially dealt with, continued to rumble forward and eventually found it’s way to ground over the line. But while everyone was trying to ascertain if the ball had found its way to the floor, referee Paul Williams decided that Cian Healy had pulled down the maul illegally anyway, and not only ran to the posts to signal a penalty try, but also sent Healy to the bin.

It was during this period that the influential Will Genia departed the field having copped a hit on his arm, the severity of which only became clear at full-time, with Nick Phipps on in his place for the last hour.

Wallabies 2018

Dane Haylett-Petty is wrapped up by Garry Ringrose – Photo: Karen Watson

Caleb Timu must have been testing the patience of his head coach when he coughed up a third penalty just before the half hour, taking a man without the ball as Ireland again used their decoy runners to good effect. He would have breathed a sigh of relief when the usually reliable Sexton then shanked his kick wide, but even though the half ended with the scoreboard intact, it was the visitor’s asking all the questions.

Michael Cheika rang the changes at the break, Timu and Brandon Paenga-Amosa off, and Lukhan Tui and Tolu Latu on in their place. And there was a further reshuffle required shortly after the restart when Adam Coleman copped some friendly fire from Israel Folau and failed to return from an HIA, Rob Simmons entering the fray.

But the green machine was on a roll now, and they continued to lay siege to the Wallaby half. Sexton was in his pomp as a controlling force, and he was ably assisted by a plethora of hardworking ball runners, and a marked return to form at the back from Rob Kearney, who didn’t enjoy his finest outing in the national jersey in Brisbane.

After almost 10 minutes of dominant possession, they looked to have broken through when replacement prop Jack McGrath found the base of a post, only for ref Williams to chalk it off for a ‘double-movement’. And they were knocking on the door again within a couple of minutes, Keith Earls spilling the ball as he grounded in the corner following 15 phases that had been manfully defended by those in gold to that point.

So you couldn’t exactly say it hadn’t been coming when Ireland did cross the chalk, prop Tadhg Furlong smashing his way home after another series of pick and drives had softened the Wallaby line.

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Impressive prop Tadhg Furlong powers over for Ireland’s second try – Photo: Karen Watson

It was a sign of Australia’s impotency as an attacking threat that Kurtley Beale was given an early bath in the 63rd minute. One of the Wallabies’ best the week before, he had been given precious little chance to shine thanks to the blanket of green he was smothered in, and Reece Hodge was sent into action to try and shift the gears into forward by other means.

Another penalty conceded by the home side – their 13th at that point of the match – was punished by Sexton’s boot, and a 12pt advantage with just under quarter of an hour to play seemed decisive given the mood Ireland were in. Sexton and Furlong – incredibly leading the run metres in the game from tighthead – were cramping up such was the effort they were putting in to keeping the series alive.

That resolve was tested even further when the visitor’s lost a man, replacement Jack McGrath sticking a sneaky hand out in the ruck as Nick Phipps tried to clear, and rightly receiving yellow. And it did provide the leg-up Australia needed, their first concerted period of pressure in the second stanza finally paying off when Taniela Tupou was shoved over by his support from a couple of metres.

Bernard Foley’s conversion made it a five-point ball game with just under five minutes left on the clock, and hopes of what would have been a rather unjust victory rose in the closing stages as the Wallabies went for broke.

But one final shot at glory was ended by a handling error, the final whistle blew, and the joyous Irish contingent packed around AAMI Park began a party that would have gone long into the early hours.

One-all, next stop Sydney.

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IRELAND 26 (Andrew Conway, Tadhg Furlong tries; Johnny Sexton 2 cons, 4 pens) defeated AUSTRALIA 21 (Penalty Try, Kurtley Beale, Taniela Tupou tries; Bernard Foley 2 cons) at AAMI Park, Melbourne. HT 16-14. Crowd 29,018

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