It is difficult to imagine Ireland’s season being remembered as anything but an unheralded success after a Six Nations Triple Crown, Championship and Grand Slam was secured on the back a 12-Test winning run.
Yet a second successive defeat to the Wallabies in Australia today (11:05am Irish time) would, for head coach Joe Schmidt and his players represent something of an unravelling of that hard-earned legacy from the 2017-18 campaign.
For this touring party Down Under, already one down in a three-Test series after last Saturday’s 18-9 defeat in Brisbane brought that national record-breaking run to an end.
The recording of back-to-back defeats for the first time since June 2016, would leave a sour taste long after the team bus departs AAMI Park and heads towards a final, dead rubber in Sydney next weekend.
In South Africa two summers ago, there was a gnawing frustration that after scoring a historic first win on Springboks soil in the opening Test in Cape Town, Ireland were unable to close out the series, losing the second and third Tests in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.
Now, having scaled remarkable heights this season, letting this series slip from grasp without at least taking it to a deciding Test would be a gut-wrenching feeling to take to the beach.
As far as Schmidt is concerned, there had been enough opportunities for Ireland at Suncorp Stadium seven days ago to have turned today’s game in a potential series claimer.
That they weren’t taken means the tourists are scrambling instead to stay alive and suddenly a successful season hangs in the balance.
“Everything affects it,” Schmidt said of the impact this second Test could have on the overall campaign.
“You are as good as your last game and I know that is a horrible cliché but you are. Certainly, how we felt after losing the first Test, it hurts. You don’t sleep too well, you run it over in your mind a few times, you watch it back and you try to find solutions to problems.
“Some of them were self-created and some were created by a really good Australian side and that is something we do not want to forget – how good they are.
They might have gone from fourth to third (in the world rankings) after winning last week, either way, they are in that top bracket, so you know that when you are playing away from home in a first Test in a humidity we would not often play at in Dublin, we know it is going to be a challenge.
Schmidt could not help but look back on the what ifs of last Saturday’s game, not least CJ Stander being held up over the tryline at the start of the second half and Kieran Marmion’s disallowed try for a knock-on at the previous ruck in the dying seconds.
“Against good teams, sometimes you can have a good performance and still not quite get the balance on the scoreboard. I thought they were very good, but we were not awful. Our lineout was very good, we created a couple of chances, CJ almost got that ball down, if he (referee Marius van der Westhuizen) had asked that question (to the TMO: “is there any reason why I can’t award a try?” rather than “try or no try?”), we might have got that one.
“I have looked at every angle I could find, even for the (disallowed) try at the end, and it is a frustrating one as well. We had a couple of other opportunities we did not make the most of ….. but so did they.
“So we will do our best to achieve because we don’t want to feel we have let ourselves down after going 12 months unbeaten, and having some fantastic moments to have your holiday start on the back of a poor tour would make the holiday break not quite as enjoyable.”
The beauty of a three-Test tour for Schmidt and his coaching staff is that Ireland have an opportunity to fix the mistakes of last weekend, make instant amends today and build some momentum going into next week’s third and final Test.
“Yeah, it is enjoyable,” the Ireland boss said of the challenge.
“So we want to be forthright with a couple of areas where we definitely think we didn’t perform as well as we would have liked. Hopefully, we have done a bit of work during the week to solve those problems on the back of two trainings on Tuesday and Thursday.
“While I thought we trained really well (on Thursday), we were pretty flat on Tuesday, which didn’t augur that well, but there was a bit more bounce in the step (on Thursday).”
Schmidt has brought back his big beasts for this must-win game as his selection has much more of a look of the settled side which achieved glory at Twickenham in March rather than the XV he sent out last week with the idea of exposing less experienced players to tier-one opposition.
While that was a necessary and not unsuccessful experiment 15 months out from the World Cup, this is a recognition of another necessity, to level the series. That the Wallabies’ head coach Michael Cheika has named an unchanged matchday squad has helped his opposite number prepare for this make or break game.
“I do enjoy trying to predict what might be coming our way,” Schmidt said on Thursday, but in this instance he is not expecting Cheika to fix what isn’t broken.
Israel Folau will still be a sizeable aerial threat when either Bernard Foley or Kurtley Beale send up high balls to test opposing full-back Rob Kearney and wings Andrew Conway and Keith Earls.
The Ireland front row will once again come under pressure from a Wallabies scrum that Cian Healy, Niall Scannell and Tadhg Furlong will have to try and keep straight and the visitors’ breakdown will have to be sharper and more accurate than a week ago when flankers David Pocock and Michael Hooper ruled the roost and instigated a wave of counter-attacks that exposed Ireland’s inability to react.
It was a high-intensity, powerhouse performance from Hooper’s team that has one wondering whether those levels can be reached for a second time in eight days while Ireland, fuelled by their frustrations at being unable to match them, will come out firing, eager to right the wrongs and remind the rugby world why their rise to second in the world rankings is no flash in the pan.
It makes for a compelling contest and one in which Ireland should have enough about them to prevail.
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