Australia started a new era under coach Robbie Deans with a nervous and hard-fought 18-12 win over a very determined Ireland side at the Telstra Stadium in Melbourne.
Rugby 365 reports that there wasn’t much to choose between the sides, although Ireland were on top for most of the second-half, and can count themselves a little unlucky to have nothing to show for their mammoth efforts.
Australia and Ireland scored two tries apiece, and it was perhaps only the raw ability of Western Force and Australia flyhalf Matt Giteau that proved to be the difference between the two sides.
The impressive Telstra Stadium was the venue for this Test, and with the roof closed, there was every chance that the game would blossom into an expansive affair.
Australia got the Robbie Deans-era off to a great start after only seven minutes, when flank George Smith did great work in creating space for Lote Tuqiri out wide.
The powerful Waratahs wing went on a typical storming run, brushing off Ireland fullback Robert Kearney in the process, before offloading for Berrick Barnes who only had a metre to go before crashing over the try-line.
Playmaker Matt Giteau has been handed the kicking duties by Robbie Deans, but he missed his first conversion to leave the Aussies leading 5-0.
Ireland were not to be upstaged so early in the match though, and they responded well.
Jamie Heaslip was prominent as the Irish broke up the touchline. They made great ground on the Aussies, and eventually a stab kick through just evaded Tommy Bowe on the left wing, as the ball was scrambled into touch by an Aussie hand.
Ireland forced the pace though, and got a great maul going from the resultant line-out. The Aussies were powerless to stop it, and Denis Leamy crashed over under a sea of green jerseys for a well-worked Irish try.
Flyhalf Ronan O’Gara slotted the conversion to put the Irish in front 7-5 after 15 minutes.
But five minutes later the genius factor of the enigmatic Matt Giteau came into full effect. The Australians were on the front foot and attacked through their backline.
Giteau received quick ball after a number of phases, and stepped twice to leave a number of Irish defenders half a metre behind him. Under severe pressure and in the tackle, Giteau managed to flip a miracle pass out to lock James Horwill, who had the easy task of scoring with an open line ahead of him.
It was pure talent from Giteau, and once again illustrated his worth. He drew at least three defenders onto himself with his nimble footwork, and then produced a pass that won’t be found in any coaching manuals.
That put the Aussies in front 12-7.
Giteau also added to the scoreline through a penalty goal on 25 minutes, after Ireland went offside at the ruck.
The score was 15-7 to the Aussies at that stage, and that’s how it stayed until half-time.
The Irish were certainly still in this contest, and they set out to restore parity in the second period.
Giteau added an early penalty after some Australian pressure to make it 18-7 after 44 minutes.
But slowly the Irish were clawing their way back into the contest. They did the hard work, and in the physical battles they were holding their own.
The visitors also looked more and more likely to cut loose with their backline.
And suddenly they hit their straps, and the just as suddenly the Australians were very vulnerable.
It was fullback Robert Kearney who was the main threat, and he looked slippery and dangerous on attack. Kearney broke free, and set-up a half-chance for an Irish score, but a forward pass robbed Jamie Heaslip of the chance to dot down under the posts for Ireland.
It was a lucky escape for Australia, who were struggling more and more to contain the Irish counter-attacks.
The hosts got out of jail for the second time only minutes later, when skipper Brian O’Driscoll took a sublime jumping catch from an Aussie up-and-under.
O’Driscoll’s jump and catch was so well-timed, that it took him clear of the Wallaby defenders that rushed up, and suddenly the centre was in space. He tore downfield, and had only one to beat. But a terrible pass inside butchered the try, as Australia miraculously survived on their line, with Cameron Shepherd doing a Houdini act to keep possession for Australia without conceding a penalty.
But the Irish had the scent of the try-line in their nostrils, and eventually got their reward for their enterprising play through their captain O’Driscoll. Much of the credit must go to wing Tommy Bowe for a cracking run, and a well-timed pass that set his skipper free to score in the tackle.
O’Gara missed the conversion, but Ireland were on the charge.
Australia were desperately trying to reconsolidate, and they tried to stop the bleeding by bringing on a few substitutions.
The game moved into the final ten minutes, with the result still hanging in the balance.
Ireland moved into overdrive and worked their socks off to try and breach that Australian line. There were a few chances for Ireland, but a few errors were creeping in as the players tired.
The final three minutes were breathtaking in its ferocity, as the Irish kept bashing at the door.
They went through sixteen phases, going from left to right across the field, but the home defence was desperately resolute.
The siren went, and still the Irish kept crashing up against the Aussie wall. But they ran out of time when a knock-on was spotted by referee Christophe Berdos, which ended the match.
The relief in the Telstra Dome was tangible. Australia had won, but it was a terribly close affair, and plenty of credit must go to the Irish team for their bravery and spirit in chasing the game until the final moment.
Man of the match: The candidates were Australia’s George Smith and Matt Giteau, and for Ireland, fullback Robert Kearney, Denis Leamy and Jamie Heaslip had storming games. The award goes to Giteau for his contribution to the Aussie scoreboard.
Moment of the match: Giteau’s step and offload that led to James Horwill’s try was five seconds of pure genius.
Villain of the match: Nobody – it was a cracking match played hard and fair.
Tries: Barnes, Horwill
Pens: Giteau 2
Tries: Leamy, O’Driscoll
Australia: 15 Cameron Shepherd, 14 Peter Hynes, 13 Stirling Mortlock (captain), 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Lote Tuqiri, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 George Smith, 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 James Horwill, 3 Matt Dunning, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Adam Freier, 17 Al Baxter, 18 Dean Mumm, 19 Phil Waugh, 20 Sam Cordingley, 21 Ryan Cross, 22 Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Ireland: 15 Robert Kearney, 14 Shane Horgan, 13 Brian O’Driscoll (captain), 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Tommy Bowe, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Peter Stringer, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Shane Jennings, 6 Denis Leamy, 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Rory Best, 1 Marcus Horan.
Replacements: 16 Jerry Flannery, 17 Tony Buckley, 18 Mick O’Driscoll, 19 Stephen Ferris, 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Geordan Murphy, 22 Girvan Dempsey.
Date: Saturday, June 14
Venue: Telstra Stadium, Melbourne
Kick-off: 19.30 (09.30 GMT)
Referee: Christophe Berdos (France)
Touch judges: Chris White (England), Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Television match official: Johann Meuwesen (South Africa)