Ireland signed off from their Grand Slam season with one last high as they edged a tense decider 20-16 in Sydney to claim a first series win in Australia since 1979.
Here, we take a look at five of the stand-out players from the series.
Minutes played: 183 (24, 79,80)
The Leinster man is an inspirational presence and everyone around him plays better and looks more confident any time he is pulling the strings from 10. He held a 84.6% successful rate from the boot (11 from 13) over the course of the three Tests and put the Wallabies under pressure all day with his crisp passing ability, superb game management and clever kicks to touch. Even for a slight figure, he always carries hard into the line, and stepped up to convert the winning penalty when the game was in the melting pot in Sydney. A Trojan-like figure and Ireland’s most important player.
Minutes played: 224 (80, 64,80)
One of the Wallabies standout performers. The 29-year-old may have been well contained by Garry Ringrose in the second Test defeat, but in Brisbane and Sydney, he looked dangerous every time he touched the ball, with crucial breaks and ability to put players outside him in formidable attacking positions. At No12, he provides Australia with a diverse attack and solid tackling ability. And with his stock rising, Beale has the chance to build further on his glowing displays in a crucial Rugby World Cup year where Michael Cheika’s side will be bidding to reach the latter stages of the tournament. For all the unreliability about him in recent times, the Waratahs man adds nimble footwork and intelligence to an improving Wallabies attack.
Minutes played: 164 (69, 64, 31)
Stood up to the David Pocock challenge and it was disappointing to see him taken off early in the deciding test due to an injury. Led from the front in Melbourne, forcing four turnovers and a crucial line-out steal to his personal ledger. He might lack the pace of other back-row players but the Munster man showed some of his best moments in an Irish jersey in Australia this month. With uncertainty over Rory Best’s availability for next year’s Rugby World Cup, the 29-year-old could be leading the Men in Green in Japan. World class player with a world class attitude to the game.
Minutes played: 240 (80, 80, 80)
An immense presence to any side. The fearless Brumbies star contested the ruck ball and disrupted Irish line-outs at every opportunity, winning the Wallabies countless penalties and a wealth of possession in a gruelling series. In the first Test, he made seven carries for 10 metres, 15 tackles, won four turnovers, had a staggering 56 ruck involvements, claimed two line outs and scored a try. And although quiet by his own standards in Melbourne, he showed a willingness to win his own ball and lead by example in the third Test when captain Michael Hooper was forced off with a hamstring injury. A high class operator at the breakdown, the 30-year-old will be a force in Japan next September.
Minutes played: 170 (32, 71, 67)
The Leinster man delivered powerful performances in Melbourne and Sydney, epitomised by some bursting runs and a crucial try in the second Test. Made 12 carries and beat six defenders in that game, just a small picture of what he brings to the table on any given day. Widely regarded as the best tighthead in the world, he is an imposing presence and always seems to have the edge in the scrum and around the breakdown. The Wallabies pack purred with dominance in the first Test and his addition certainly added pace and sheer brute power to help contain a dynamic Wallabies duo of Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu.
This was a high quality test match, with two team desperate for a series win.
There was more intensity in the first ten minutes in Sydney than the entire eighty minutes of the Barbarians style All Blacks and France runabout in Dunedin.
In the end Ireland got home 20-16, just, with a TMO non-decision ending the game – and giving the men in green a 2-1 series victory.
All hail David Pocock
The Wallabies were thrown into dis-array when captain Michael Hooper had to leave the field on 16 minutes with a reported hamstring problem.
Luckily David Pocock stepped into the breach and had another standout match. The real surprise performer for Australia however was the Crusaders recent defector Peter Samu.
With Hooper going off so early you would have thought it was a disaster for Australia, but if anything it corrected an imbalance in the Wallabies backrow with Samu, Lukhan Tui and the peerless Pocock standing tall against a very good Ireland backrow.
One hit from Tui on Bundee Aki shook the stadium and all of the trio had their standout moments.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika is notorious for tinkering with the backrow and has a fondness for Waratahs flanker Ned Hanigan, but surely this must be his back-row quartet going into the Rugby Championship.
Ireland are now Rugby World Cup favourites
Fifteen months out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup and although New Zealand are still the No1 ranked team in the world, the favourites in Japan are Ireland.
Kiwi Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, alongside Australian High Performance director David Nucifora, have done a superb job developing skills and depth.
But most of all Ireland are the masters under pressure. This win, where they virtually defended for the entire second half, was just as good as the last minute heroics in Paris that began their Six Nations run to glory.
Yes the All Blacks are far more dangerous in attack than the Wallabies but in the high pressure of a RWC knockout match with Ireland’s swarming defence and the All Blacks as yet untested mental strength, I’m backing the men in green.
“Players in the air” has become a farce
Another incident with players in the air with this time Israel Folau yellow carded for an innocuous challenge on Peter O’Mahony.
It was as commentator Phil Kearns said: “World Rugby has gone mad.”
French referee Pascal Gauzere at first made the correct call saying that Folau had made a realistic attempt to play for the ball, therefore did not commit a foul.
He was then over-ruled by officious TMO Ben Skeen, who seemed desperate to make a name for himself. (He was much quieter when called upon later in the match.)
The Kiwi decided that Folau, who brushed O’Mahony’s side while he was in the air, should take a ten minute rest.
There have been some very poor decisions in this area over the last month but this was the worse.
The fault in O’Mahony falling was completely due to CJ Stander’s poor security as the lifter.
Players contesting the ball in the air is one of the great spectacle of rugby but there is now so much uncertainty about this facet of the game that you can completely understand players just letting the ball bounce.
Last week France’s Benjamin Fall was red carded, a decision that was rightly overturned by the judiciary, and now Folau’s absurd yellow card.
World Rugby must act on this and act now. The rule desperately needs to be clarified.
For starters lifters must be held to the responsibility of getting their own player to the ground safely.
With the match becoming a contest in attacking brilliance there of course would only be one winner and the All Blacks 49-14, seven tries to two, victory reflected their dominance.
But with the Rugby Championship only two months away what did we learn about the reigning Rugby World Cup, Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup holders.
Very little fear factor with All Blacks
Perhaps its Steve Hansen’s constant rotations or the effect of Super Rugby but what was interesting right from the start was Les Bleus willingness to get their hands on the ball.
Every single France player wanted a piece of the action to take on the much vaunted All Blacks defence.
We all knew from a young age that Jack Goodhue was going to be an All Black. Tonight he deservedly gets his 1st test cap. Myself & the rest of the MAGS alumni are incredibly proud of him. Tonight will mark the beginning of a very long career in the black jersey. Photo from 2013! pic.twitter.com/Bt6vHY1azo— Taylah Hodson-Tomokino (@taylahtomokino) June 23, 2018
France opened the scoring with a try on 12 minutes to replacement scrumhalf Baptiste Serin and it was no less than they deserved after dominating possession and territory for the opening stanza.
There were a few stinging tackles from New Zealand but nothing to make the French hesitant.
Of course defending the All Blacks is another matter and as soon as they got any possession Ben Smith was over to even the scores.
Keep the ball however and these All Blacks will give you a chance.
France also looked to have unearthed a good combination in veteran scrumhalf Morgan Parra and flyhalf Anthony Belleau.
The No10 has been a real issue for Les Bleus in recent seasons and hopefully the 22-year-old Toulon pivot is the answer.
SBW back to his best
Steve Hansen has a number of extremely tantalizing options in the midfield for the Rugby Championship.
But against France Sonny Bill Williams was back to his best, holding the ball in one hand and charging at the Les Bleus defence, offloading at will.
The first decision for the New Zealand boss is who does he put at No12 – Ryan Crotty or SBW – then once that decision has been made he has Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape or Jack Goodhue to slot in at outside centre.
Goodhue did well in his first Test and Hansen seems to prefer Lienert-Brown but for me the Hurricanes Laumape is the most dangerous runner.
The All Blacks have an incredibly exciting array of backline talent to call on and against France their virtually second-string line-up was scorching.
Hansen will probably opt for the Barrett brothers back in his starting XV which means the 15-9 positions will look like: Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams, Anton Lienert-Brown or Ryan Crotty, Ben Smith, Jordie Barrett with TJ Perenra and Damian McKenzie on the bench allowing a 6-2 forward-backs split in the replacements.
SBW went off with (another) shoulder injury late on – so let’s hope he is not on the sidelines for long. Rugby needs his panache.
France fall victim to yet another gross injustice for the third Test in a row. Referee John Lacey unwittingly blocks Jean-Baptiste Serin from tackling McKenzie who shoots over between the posts. TMO plays it again, clear for all to see except the officials. Daylight robbery.— Peter Jackson (@JackoRugby) June 23, 2018
The All Blacks of course may just be selling their Rugby Championship opponents a huge dummy but their scrum looked far from impressive against France.
Hansen could have easily told the ABs pack to take their foot off the gas so the Wallabies, the All Blacks next opponents on August 18th, could falsely start to think there is a chink in the armor there – before turning it on in Sydney.
New Zealand of course have had huge issues with injuries and suspensions to front rowers this June with Dane Coles a long-time casualty and both Joe Moody and Owen Franks spending time on the sidelines due to indiscretions.
It means Hansen has had to go deep into his prop reserves with unlikely candidates like Karl Tu’inukuafe elevated to the famous Black jersey.
Moody and Franks were back to the starting line-up for this Test but were easily held by a France pack not known for their scrumming power.
Indeed the NZ scrum looked better when Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tu’ungafasi came on in the second half.
True the All Blacks were missing Brodie Retallick at lock and Kieran Read at No8, who add to the power at scrum time, but it would be surprising if New Zealand dominated at scrum time in the Rugby Championship.
And at this point actually look like the weakest scrumming unit against a resurgent South Africa, an improving Australia and even up-and-down Argentina.