The Autumn Internationals may mean nothing on paper but in reality they can mean everything to a team, and Ireland have shown that over the course of these three games.
Todays win over Australia saw Ireland round off the Autumn series with three wins out of three and most importantly two victories over Southern hemisphere sides, proving that Ireland can compete with the best in the business.
Coming into the first game against South Africa, little was expected of the Irish squad, South Africa had been strong in the Rugby Championship and Ireland were missing some key players including Gordon Darcy, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien but nevertheless they came out on top after a bone crunching game where Ireland’s forwards showed they are capable of facing up to any pack in world rugby.
The likes of Devin Toner really stepped up in that game and a score-line of 29-15 was much deserved for a brilliant Ireland side on the day even trying out a new and potentially fruitful centre partnership between Rob Henshaw and Jared Payne. Was the result not satisfactory enough for the Irish, South African bounced back the following week to beat the self proclaimed top Northern Hemisphere side England 31-28.
Following on from the South Africa game, Ireland welcomed Georgia to the Aviva Stadium in a game where the fringe players were given a chance and they did not disappoint. Ireland came out with an expected win by 49 points to 7. Regardless of the opponents there were some particularly impressive performances for Joe Schmidt, Leinster man Ian Madigan was superb from his goal kicking to in field kicks it was hard to find flaws in his game. Lock, Dave Foley was another notable performer being credited with the Man of the Match award and putting him in the frame for a more central role in Joe Schmidt’s plans.
The Autumn Series up to the Australia game was filled with positives and todays win against Australia will do nothing but increase the optimism amongst the Irish camp and supporters as we edge ever closer to the World Cup. In what was one of the most thrilling games of International rugby in recent times Ireland came away with a 26-23 win.
The game was thrilling from start to finish, after opening up a 17 point lead in the first seventeen minutes Ireland found themselves level fifteen minutes later after a remarkable and somewhat controversial comeback from the Wallabies. Having shown there defensive qualities against the Boks, it was the backs turn to show their quality and they didn’t disappoint, a Simon Zebo try thanks to a brilliant diagonal kick from Jonny Sexton and a fantastic individual try from Tommy Bowe, intercepting the ball in his own twenty two and racing all the way to the line, showed Ireland’s qualities from open play.
One worry for Joe Schmidt and his coaches will be the amount of missed tackles for two of Australia’s tries. After such a high scoring first half Ireland looked to shut up shop in the second half and so they did with a heroic Paul O’Connell performance inspiring them over the line.
Jonny Sexton continues to become more assured in his goal-kicking and his reading of the game, his kick over the top for Zebo’s try was particularly impressive. Unfortunately for Jared Payne injury dealt his chances of cementing a place in Irelands centre a blow but his potential partner Rob Henshaw looked the perfect man to take up the massive hole left in the centre following Brian O’Driscoll's retirement.
After replacing Australia at third place in the world rankings, Ireland have certainly lived up to the hype and are now looking more than ready to defend their Six Nations title. Joe Schmidt has instilled a ruthless mentality amongst the players and getting two wins over Southern Hemisphere sides could not have come at a better time with the World Cup only around the corner. Should Ireland keep this form up in the New Year they will have to be considered major contenders for the World Cup.