ROSS BYRNE HAS watched out-halves go in and out of the Ireland squad over the last year and a bit. His brother Harry, Ciarán Frawley, and Jack Crowley. He has had to bide his time on the outside looking in.
But handed his chance in green for the first time since March 2021, Leinster out-half Byrne stepped up and delivered a moment of pure composure to nail a penalty shot from wide on the right and around 40 metres from the posts to ensure Ireland end 2022 with another win. Byrne barely blinked in the face of the extreme pressure.
Byrne’s 77th-minute penalty proved to be the difference between Ireland and the visiting Wallabies in what was a poor-quality Test match.
He wasn’t even supposed to be playing today but a calf injury to captain Johnny Sexton in the warm-up forced him out of the contest, meaning a first-ever Test start for 22-year-old Munster man Jack Crowley. As is always the case, Ireland missed Sexton.
Victory means Andy Farrell’s men have completed a trinity of wins over Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand in the same calendar year. This success means they also match Ireland’s best-ever run of 12 consecutive wins at home.
Impressive facts, but this wasn’t a particularly impressive performance. There were moments when it felt like Ireland might let it slip away and end what has been a brilliant year on a deflating note. They needed a big moment of maul defence in the final minute to see this one out.
Time and time and time again, Ireland gave the Wallabies chances to stay in the fight. The visiting Australians deserve credit for their grit, of course, especially as they were hit by injuries.
Farrell’s side delivered what was largely a sloppy performance as their poor discipline, breakdown work, handling, and decision-making meant they only just about deserved the victory.
That said, their defensive effort was immense and there were other good bits too. Caelan Doris was named player of the match after yet another outstanding showing in the number eight jersey. He is world-class at the age of 24.
Ireland’s attack stuttered and they even had two attacking chances against 13 defenders in the Australian 22 at one stage in the second half but those spurned opportunities were part of a scrappy display.
They did finally cross in the 67th minute through replacement centre Bundee Aki as the Irish bench made a strong impact, but Ireland conceded almost immediately to leave the game in the balance. To their great relief, Byrne decided it.
The first half started and ended with near-tries for either side, the Wallabies actually crossing to dot down through Nic White in the fourth minute after a poor Irish start only for the score to be chalked off due to a neck roll by hooker Dave Porecki on Josh van der Flier. It was a good spot by TMO Stuart Terheege and a let-off for Farrell’s men.
A trademark Tadhg Beirne turnover penalty gave Ireland some belated momentum and they opened the scoring a few minutes later when Porecki was pinged for hands in the ruck and Crowley nailed his shot at goal from the right of the posts.
But Farrell’s men couldn’t build on those three points as their poor discipline – seven penalties conceded in the first half – repeatedly invited the Wallabies into their 22, to the tune of more than five minutes of Aussie possession in that area in total.
To be fair, Ireland’s defence was excellent against a blunt Wallabies attack that missed centre Hunter Paisami after his early injury.
Furlong led the defensive effort with his thunderous tackling, Hugo Keenan covered the backfield bravely, but the visitors had a chance to level the game heading into the second quarter after Caelan Doris was caught offside. The Aussie out-half missed to the right.
A huge 21-phase defensive shift soon after sparked the home crowd into The Fields of Athenry but in truth, they didn’t have a whole lot to cheer about in a very scrappy first half as Ireland’s sloppy discipline continued to hinder them.
Farrell’s men needed a big lineout steal from James Ryan five metres out from the Irish tryline in the 34th minute and then the Wallabies’ own lack of discipline saw sub hooker Folau Fainga’a sin-binned for their fourth neck roll of the half soon before the break.
Ireland went down the other end and earned a very kickable penalty but opted to go into the corner, as is becoming their habit, only to be rejected by the Aussies. Hooker Dan Sheehan looked set to barrel over after breaking off the maul but Nic White did superbly to stop him and Jamison Gibson-Park then stepped into touch.
A tetchy first half concluded with Andrew Porter tangling with White and Ireland leading 3-0.
Farrell’s side had promising possession early in the second period but twice coughed the ball up when they had worked their way into the Wallabies’ 22. The Aviva Stadium crowd needed something to cheer about and Ireland were gifted a lovely opportunity for exactly that as uncontested scrums meant the Wallabies dropping briefly to 13 men with Fainga’a still in the sin bin.
Ireland had just over two minutes to take advantage but Mack Hansen was tackled into touch down the right on both of the ensuing Irish attacks, the second requiring a TMO review after he nearly got a try-scoring offload away to Gibson-Park. It was fine margins but the reality was Ireland missing a gilt-edged chance to score.
The home side got another chance in the Aussies’ 22 after Fainga’a’s return but were choked up in the tackle for yet another turnover.
The Wallabies’ injury toll was mounting, however, as Rob Valetini joined Porecki and Paisami in being forced off – Valetini departing after a high tackle on Sheehan that was deemed a penalty only.
It did allow Ireland to kick into the right corner but once again, Ireland blew their chance, the Wallabies producing a massive tackle on Doris and then counter-rucking to force a panicked Irish breakdown infringement.
O’Mahony was subbed off with 30 minutes left as Jack Conan entered the fray and James Ryan took over the captaincy, but Conan’s first major involvement was a knock-on in the Irish lineout on their own 22-metre line.
With the introduction of the powerful duo of tighthead prop Taniela Tupou and tighthead lock Will Skelton, the Wallabies turned the subsequent scrum into a penalty, although Tupou had to be stretchered off in agony immediately after that set-piece win.
Foley levelled the game off the tee with 55 minutes played but the deeply frustrating pattern of penalty, breakdown error, sloppy handling mistake, penalty, knock-on continued in what was a difficult watch.
The Wallabies gained some momentum early in the final quarter but then a tackle in the air on Ringrose allowed Ireland back down into their territory and finally, the number-one-ranked team in the world made it count.
With the crowd finding its voice to urge Ireland over, van der Flier carried powerfully, then replacement centre Bundee Aki barged over in the 67th minute off sub scrum-half Craig Casey’s pass on penalty advantage. Crowley converted from the right of the posts and Ireland led 10-3.
It lasted barely two minutes as yet another sloppy Irish penalty allowed the Wallabies down the other end immediately, where they earned their own penalty advantage and then swung the ball wide right for Jordan Petaia to scoot over.
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From wide on the right, Foley nailed the conversion for 10-10 with eight minutes to go.
A scrum penalty earned by the replacement front row of Cian Healy, Rob Herring and Finlay Bealham gave Ireland a shot at goal five metres in from the right touchline and around 35 metres out from the tryline.
Having just come on for Crowley, Byrne stepped up. He nailed his chance.
Ireland still needed a last-gasp maul defensive effort five metres from their own tryline but the Wallabies were pinged and the Irish crowd could breathe a sigh of relief.
Tries: Bundee Aki
Conversions: Jack Crowley [1 from 1]
Penalties: Jack Crowley [1 from 1], Ross Byrne [1 from 1]
Tries: Jordan Petaia
Conversions: Bernard Foley [1 from 1]
Penalties: Bernard Foley [1 from 2]
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Stuart McCloskey (Bundee Aki ’54), Jimmy O’Brien; Jack Crowley (Ross Byrne ’72), Jamison Gibson-Park (Craig Casey ’63); Andrew Porter (Cian Healy ’72), Dan Sheehan (Rob Herring ’72), Tadhg Furlong (Finlay Bealham ’63); Tadhg Beirne (Joe McCarthy ’60), James Ryan; Peter O’Mahony (captain) (Jack Conan ’50), Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.
AUSTRALIA: Andrew Kellaway (Jake Gordon ’60); Mark Nawaqanitawase, Len Ikitau, Hunter Paisami (Jordan Petaia ’4 (off temporarily ’44 to ’47)), Tom Wright; Bernard Foley, Nic White (HIA – Jake Gordon ’48 to ’54); James Slipper (captain) (Tom Robertson ‘), David Porecki (Folau Fainga’a ’24 (yellow card ’37)), Allan Alaalatoa (Taniela Tupou ’53 – reversal ’54); Nick Frost, Cadeyrn Neville (Will Skelton ’53); Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Rob Valetini (Taniela Tupou ’44 to ’47) (Pete Samu ’49).
Replacement not used: Noah Lolesio
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe [NZR].