Ireland achieved the first genuine upset of the 2011 Rugby World Cup as they defeated the world number two ranked team, Australia.
No tries were scored in the match and both teams relied on penalty goals, and one drop goal from Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton, in a tight and tense match. Australia scored first through the boot of returning winger James O’Connor, before Ireland replied with a penalty from Sexton. Sexton then booted a drop goal as Ireland held a penalty advantage in front of the posts, before O’Connor tied it up 6-6 at half time.
In the second half, the Irish held Australia scoreless with strong and scrambling defence, slowly edging their advantage out with further penalties to Sexton and the substitute Ronan O’Gara. After stretching their lead to nine points with ten minutes left on the clock, Ireland repelled several raids on their line and came closest to a try of their own in the 79th minute when winger Tommy Bowe made an interception on his own try-line and ran ninety metres before being cut down in fine covering defense by O’Connor.
Australia’s backline looked the more threatening of the two teams’, but in a cool and at times rainy Auckland evening, this was a night for the forwards. Australia lost two key men from their pack to injury before the game; openside flanker David Pocock and hooker Stephen Moore both forced to withdraw from the starting line-up. At the breakdown both teams seemed to have parity but the Irish back row, led by the returning Sean O’Brien, were strong in the tackle and made several turnovers by holding Australian players up in the tackle to win scrums for their team.
Without Pocock, the Wallabies didn’t have their usual speed to the breakdown and there was a notable absence of turnovers won by a tackler ripping the ball free at the ruck. The scrum was another strong area for the Irish as their front five, led by man of the match Cian Healy and aided by the loss of Moore from Australia’s strongest line-up, slowly gained the upper hand and began to win penalties from referee Bryce Lawrence.
Ireland were also successful in slowing the pace of the game to keep the Wallabies’ backs in check, and their scrambling defence when runners did find gaps was outstanding, with the back row again to the fore. Kurtley Beale was at his slippery best and was often the man finding those gaps in the Irish line; but Quade Cooper had a mercurial game with plenty of classy touches let down by errors as the Irish made sure he was under plenty of pressure.
This was a match of the highest intensity and it will be interesting to see if Ireland, in particular, can get up again and put in similar performances come the knock out stages. If they do, expect them to run deep into the finals. Australia, on the other hand, will be smarting from such a defeat and can now expect to end up in a quarter final with South Africa, and on the same side of the finals draw as New Zealand (assuming both that the All Blacks top their group; and that Ireland have no slip ups against Italy and Russia).