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News article – Style E 3132

News article – Style E 3132

A week ago against Argentina, Ireland won a match they could have lost. On Saturday night against Australia, they lost a match they could have won … and both finished with the same margin.

It’s a custom of the Wallabies to go into a huddle on the field before just about every Test. It’s not their custom to do so when the full-time whistle blows – Wayne Smith of the Australian Newspaper tells us – but they did after escaping with a one-point win against Ireland.

For a moment, it seemed George Gregan was about to follow the example of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, who gathered all his players around him after South Africa’s shock victory over the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup final and led them in a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving.

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Had Gregan done the same, it would have been highly appropriate. A week ago against Argentina, Ireland won a match they could have lost. On Saturday night against Australia, they lost a match they could have won … and both finished with the same margin.

Although it wasn’t a prayer meeting Gregan convened on the pitch, it did have a slightly evangelical flavour to it, touching on those old familiar themes of human frailty, atonement for mistakes, celebration and a journey to the Promised Land.

“Basically, he said that while we didn’t play to the best of our ability, we won the game, we survived and that’s what World Cups are all about – survival,” vice-captain Elton Flatley said yesterday.

“It’s a good result when you can get a win over a very good Test nation, so George told us to enjoy it, but that this is the start of the real World Cup.”

Ireland are a very good Test nation and coach Eddie O’Sullivan had every reason to be miffed that the Wallabies, preoccupied with their own shortcomings and mea culpas, seemed to have completely overlooked that point.

“I thought it was a very good performance from us and Australia still came out on the right side of it, so they’ve got to be happy with that,” O’Sullivan said.

“People say: ‘Oh, you only beat Ireland by a point, so there must be something wrong with your game’. My point is that we should have beaten them and they still wouldn’t have played badly.

“I would hate this performance to be described as another Irish binge of lunacy, where we ran around and tackled everything we saw. I thought there was a lot of structure out there.”

Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, having peered over the edge of the precipice on Saturday night – “I didn’t think we were gone, but I think we were close to it” – stepped back from the brink yesterday to take a broader view.

“We’re not happy with our performance, but Ireland played bloody well,” Jones acknowledged.

From an Australian perspective, three positives emerged from the match. Firstly, the Wallabies finally rediscovered the art of winning cliffhangers, having lost two Tri-Nations matches this year by less than five points, getting edged by a point by England at Twickenham last November and losing 33-31 to the Boks in Johannesburg a few months earlier.

Secondly, their discipline held up under the gut-churning tension of the second half as Keith Wood’s team, inspired by the single word emblazoned on a huge Irish flag draped over the fence, “Believe”, came at the world champions like men possessed. In the critical final 10 minutes, it was Ireland who lost the faith, whose composure cracked.

And finally, the Wallabies’ defence was near-impregnable, save for the conspicuous lapse by Wendell Sailor that gave Brian O’Driscoll just enough space to break his 10-Test try-scoring drought. It’s not that Sailor, beaten earlier by winger Denis Hickie and five-eighth Ronan O’Gara, can’t tackle. At times he monsters his rivals. No, his problem is that he thinks every opposing ball-carrier is as terrified of the sideline as he is, courtesy of his years of rugby league conditioning. He thinks they won’t dare try to beat him on the outside – and invariably they take up his dare.

The few positives, however, were more than offset by a string of negatives: the line-out performed worse than in any Test since the England loss in June; poor handling contributed to two-thirds of Australia’s 15 turnovers; and sloppy execution out wide led to the opportunities that Ireland couldn’t quite capitalise on.

But make no mistake, the All Blacks won’t let those chances go to waste in the semi-final – assuming the Wallabies don’t allow the Scots to turn next Saturday’s quarter-final at Suncorp Stadium into Braveheart II.

No-one gave the Wallabies any chance of winning in 1991 after their extraordinary one-point escape against Ireland at Lansdowne Road. But Bob Dwyer’s team went on from there to beat the All Blacks and England – the very scenario building in this tournament. Yet the Wallabies’ bumbling performance has given their rivals the same encouragement England’s inept showing against South Africa had given them a few weeks ago. “Is that all you’ve got?” asked The Australian’s much-quoted headline after the Springbok game.

Small wonder the English media on Saturday night were turning those words back on the Wallabies. – “Is that all you’ve got?”