First the positive news. Ireland won a Test match without Johnny Sexton. Good teams find a way to win when not playing at their best, and of all their nine victories in 2022 this hard-earned victory ticked both boxes more than any other.
Had Ireland lost, the theory that this team remains Sexton-dependent might have even seeped into the players’ minds. Moving forward, it’s perhaps no bad thing that they were denied their main man at short notice.
By the same token, though, the performance itself – particularly in attack – didn’t dispel the Sexton-dependent theory either. That’s hardly surprising. Much like Dan Carter, whose importance to the All Blacks for three World Cup cycles was equally pronounced, Sexton is a generational player. Much like Carter for New Zealand, Sexton may well be the best Irish outhalf there ever has been or ever will be.
So, comparisons are always going to be a little unfair, and this was especially so in the case of Jack Crowley here.
Even Sexton would have struggled to make an impact, not least in a first half in which Ireland had 38 per cent possession, and, as well as Australia played, some of the pernickety penalties and refereeing by the overbearing Ben O’Keeffe and his officials didn’t help the game at all.
Sexton was only withdrawn about an hour before kick-off – if even – due to a calf issue. The 22-year-old Crowley did have a couple of starts on the Emerging Ireland tour, and a couple of run-ons for the A side against the All Blacks XV and against Fiji a week previously, but he’s only ever started six games at “10″ for Munster, only one of which was in the Champions Cup.
He and Stuart McCloskey had only ever played together for 34 minutes in total, a week previously. Considering all of that, the former Irish Under-20 star acquitted himself assuredly. After a couple of safe early penalties to touch, he struck the ball well, had some nice touches and looked composed. This has been a hugely beneficial few weeks for him.
Yet for sure Ireland would have been more organised in attack with Sexton. An example of this came in the 51st minute. After three promising phases off a turnover, Crowley seemed almost to be crowded by his own players and went ahead with a delayed flat pass to Tadhg Beirne as he ran into Cadeyrn Neville and knocked on, when the option was probably to go behind to McCloskey.
The Wallabies took a leaf out of the South African manual by denying Ireland rapid quick ruck ball and selectively going for turnovers. Michael Hooper won three of them alone, albeit one should have been penalised, and they also counter-rucked to telling effect.
Otherwise they fanned across the pitch, and, save for McCloskey and – when he came on – Bundee Aki, too much of Ireland’s running game was lateral.
Aki powered over for the try from Craig Casey’s pass after a clever lineout launched Caelan Doris at the Wallabies defence, despite Casey initially taking the wrong option by going blind without support.
But, in addition to the quality of their lineout, Ireland won this game largely through their defence. The defiance was set by the 21-phase, two-minute-20-second defensive set which ended with the outstanding Doris winning a turnover penalty.
Ireland made 203 tackles, 141 of them in the first half, and, as ever, Josh van der Flier (26) and Doris (23) led the way, with each of the front five putting in big shifts and Garry Ringrose defending superbly.
Yet in the heel of it all, another outhalf emerged as the unlikeliest of heroes. Called into the squad on Tuesday to be 24th man and introduced in the 73rd minute for his first cap since playing one minute against England in March last year, Ross Byrne jogged straight over to where O’Keefe had signalled a scrum penalty five metres from the right touchline and at 45 metres range, and immediately pointed to the posts.
Despite a 20-second warning from O’Keeffe, Byrne was turning toward his own half by the time the ball bisected the posts. And you knew he would. Fair play to him.
“We had a penalty and I didn’t even have to make a call,” revealed James Ryan, who’d assumed the captaincy. “He came up to me with the ball and had a smile on his face. And yeah, it’s just he’s a very confident player, and I knew when I saw that there was a very good chance that he would knock it between the sticks.
“Yeah, he’s a very confident player, it’s one of his strengths. I was delighted for him to come in late, and to come on to the pitch and knock over the kick was brilliant.”
Reflective of the Irish performance, they could have engineered eight minutes against 13 men had they opted for a scrum before half-time instead of kicking to the corner with a penalty.
This eventually came to pass with the first scrum of the second half, effectively affording Ireland 2½ minutes and two plays with a two-man advantage – one off a lineout and the second off an uncontested scrum.
Both times Jamison Gibson-Park opted for the blindside and both times Mack Hansen was tackled into touch. Granted, from the second of these, Ireland were only denied a try by the tiniest of margins as Hansen’s heel brushed the touchline fractionally before firing a return pass back inside to Gibson-Park.
In the absence of Sexton, perhaps under orders, Gibson-Park seemed to assume even more of a decision-making role. It’s also an easy game in the cheap seats. But the option of twice going blind, and once with seven backs against five, was curious. It certainly wouldn’t have disappointed the Wallabies not to be taken through the phases and it made the touchline their 14th defender.
Not that the men in gold won’t be kicking themselves for missing this golden chance.