How times have changed. When Ireland toured South Africa back in 1998, it was clear the only player in the Irish squad the Springboks knew was Keith Wood, who had played a key role in the Lions test series win over our hosts the previous season.
That trend continued for years when Irish trips to New Zealand or Australia would draw the usual bouquets for Brian O’Driscoll accompanied by a blissful ignorance of anyone else in the team. All week, in the build-up to Saturday’s test, the visiting Springboks love-bombed their hosts with eulogies flying left, right and centre.
Ireland are “the All Blacks of Europe”. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton the best half-backs in the game. Tadhg Furlong the most menacing tight-head prop in Europe. And so it continued to the extent that one wondered would the tourists bother turning up at Lansdowne Road on Saturday. Perhaps some of them now wish they hadn’t.
At least, even in the dark days for Irish rugby, you could be guaranteed that Ireland would carry the fight to the opposition. Try as they might on Saturday, South Africa were so far off the pace, both tactically and technically, that Ireland were never in any danger of losing this contest.
In fact, for the entire opening half, Ireland were near perfect in terms of their control and game management when in possession of the balll and in their defensive structure and organisation without it. No wonder Joe Schmidt highlighted Ireland’s efficiency levels during that highly impressive period.
Even when the Springboks lifted their overall level of performance and dominated possession in the third quarter, they had no idea what to do with the ball and were constantly forced into error by the intensity and pressure Ireland were able to apply.
We knew in advance this South African side would struggle to impose themselves without achieving a clear dominance up front. That was never going to happen given the quality of this Irish forward unit, with seven Lions ready to match the brute force the visitors would bring to proceedings.
From the very first scrum, when the Irish front five gained a clear advantage on a Springbok put in, the psychological edge was swinging Ireland’s way. It didn’t help proceedings that South Africa lost their returning tight head Coenie Oosthuizen in the opening minute after a crunching tackle from Bundee Aki announced his much-heralded arrival on the international stage.
Ireland had a clear strategy coming into this game and executed that plan magnificently. No wonder Schmidt was purring as, once again, his meticulous attention to detail in the lead up to this was clear for all to see.
The contrast in composure and direction offered by the respective half-back pairings could not have been more stark. Murray and Sexton were masterful in terms of their control and game management. Ultimately that extended to everyone in the less-than-striking grey strip favoured by Ireland on the day.
or their South African counterparts, Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies, their efforts to similarly influence the game and establish field position was shambolic. Their kicking was aimless and offered their chasers no chance whatsoever to contest for possession or put the Irish under any semblance of pressure.
On the flip side, South Africa’s back three of Andries Coetzee, Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan were absolutely terrorised by the hang time achieved by Murray and Sexton, coupled with the chase offered by Andrey Conway and Jacob Stockdale. Ireland’s kicking game, while not pleasing on the eye, has been turned into an art form.
What Ireland produced here was a tactical masterclass with Schmidt preying on pre-identified South African vulnerability. Their kicking game ripped the visitors apart, the intensity of their line speed in defence forced South Africa into continual error and the set piece power plays created huge problems for the Springbok defence.
For that to happen the platform up front has to be rock solid, which it was. In addition, the quality of Ireland’s work at the breakdown was exemplary. Time and time again Ireland forced key turnovers due to the technical proficiency of captain Rory Best, Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock and CJ Stander post the tackle.
outh Africa had nowhere to turn and some of their decision making under pressure was woeful. With a clear three on one attacking advantage, their most capped back, Damien De Allende, inexcusably kicked possession away. Unbelievably, for a South African side, they couldn’t handle pressure and had no idea how to apply it.
With a little more accuracy in execution, Ireland would have racked up the points far earlier than the closing ten minutes when the fresh impact introduced off their bench proved telling. That accuracy will also improve over the coming weeks with more preparation time.
What Ireland possess is a hard-nosed intellectual core in the key middle five sector with the experience and power offered in the back row by Stander, O’Brien and Peter O Mahony complementing the outstanding leadership of the half-backs. South Africa had nothing to match the influence of that quintet.
When you consider that the back row trio are still a bit off their best after their Lions exertions and Ireland’ s attacking game will be more clinical over the next two games, it is exciting to think that, even after this record win, there is still plenty of scope for improvement.
Schmidt will have been encouraged with the quality of performance delivered by three of the relative newcomers. Stockdale had a big game, with and without the ball, despite being deprived of any real attacking opportunities until the closing 10 minutes.
Andrew Conway, who would not have started if Keith Earls hadn’t tweaked his hamstring in training, enjoyed a very productive opening half while Aki, with 17 crunching tackles to his credit, confirmed what we already suspected in that he has the quality to step up to the rigours of international rugby without too much difficulty. He will only get better with more exposure to this level.
On the broader front, with the very real prospect of facing South Africa in a World Cup quarter-final in under two years time, this contest, coupled with the valuable three-test series in South Africa last year, has offered this group of Irish players clear evidence that they have the armoury to succeed should that prove to be the next time the two sides meet.
Yes, South Africa will improve. Indeed it difficult to envisage how they could get any worse. Ironically, Rassie Erasmus leaves Limerick today to take up his role as his native country’s new director of rugby.
You wonder what was going through his mind as he prepared to board the plane after this abject failure. On this evidence he faces an enormous challenge.
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