What should have been a celebration with the return of international rugby to its magnificent new home turned into a bit of a disaster – and that was before the clash with South Africa started.
The ticket fiasco which had overshadowed the build up to the game hit home even more forcibly than we thought with vast sways of empty seats greeting the teams on their arrival.
To make matters worse the retro Irish jersey, specially commissioned for this game looked as if it had been wrapped up for years – without the aid of moth balls. The ease with which the South African pack ripped them to shreds in the opening half added credence to their bully boy image and forced a complete change of kit for the home team at half time.
It was only one of several things that went horribly wrong on the day.
Of greater significance, Ireland were sucked into a pattern of play that suited the Springboks just fine. All week I feared that Ireland would get drawn into a war of attrition up front and not play to their strengths behind the scrum. That is exactly what happened and in those circumstances there was only going to be one winner.
The fact that Ireland finished the game within a margin of two points says as much about South Africa’s lack of ambition and confidence to kick on from a position of strength as it did about Ireland’s fortitude. New Zealand will not be as accommodating.
The catalyst for change on the Irish side was the introduction of 190 caps worth of experience and guile when Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer were sprung together with 15 minutes left on the clock. With O’Gara now joining a select band on 100 international caps it would have been appropriate for the stadium announcer to highlight the fact and stimulate the crowd. Typical of the day, he missed his opportunity.
The same, however, cannot be said of O’Gara. His impact along with Stringer was instantaneous, with the tempo of Ireland’s play picking up immediately as a sense of panic overcame South Africa. When O’Gara manufactured a carbon copy of Tommy Bowe’s Grand Slam try in Cardiff with one of those measured cross kicks, Ireland threatened to level a game from a position where they should have been dead and buried. A further try by Rob Kearney offered a glimpse of what the new Lansdowne roar would sound like with a full house and something positive to cheer. When O’Gara’s conversion rebounded off the outside of the post, Ireland’s brief but brave renaissance was quashed.
South Africa carry the mantle of world champions but they haven’t been the leading side in the game for some time now. New Zealand, despite losing to Australia in Hong Kong, fully deserve that billing. Yet even playing well within themselves, the Springboks looked so superior to Ireland at times on Saturday that one has to wonder what the All Blacks are capable of doing to us when they arrive.
The irony of this game is that after a summer of watching southern hemisphere rugby inspired by new law interpretation which encourages teams to retain possession and run, South Africa unveiled a game plan dating back to my generation. It was built around domination of the set piece and playing in the opposition’s half of the field.
Twelve months ago, Ireland beat the visiting Springboks by 15-10 because they dismantled their lineout. Victor Matfield took that as a personal insult and it was clear from his comments all week that he was not going to preside over a repeat.
The demolition of Ireland’s lineout, however, was the stuff of nightmares. On 12 occasions in this contest Rory Best stood to deliver. For a variety of reasons Ireland only won possession from five of those. On the other hand South Africa had an unblemished return of 15 from 15.
The crazy thing was that Ireland facilitated this and played right into the hands of Matfield and co. In the recent Tri Nations both New Zealand and Australia refused to kick direct to touch and feed a voracious Springbok lineout. As a result they were restricted to an average of eight throws per game.
Ireland ignored this lesson and the Boks were allowed to ease themselves into the game with six lineouts in the opening ten minutes. That was criminal. They used that platform to either maul Ireland into submission – which usually ended up with the concession of a penalty – or to launch Jean de Villiers up the middle of the field. Simple stuff. Ireland knew what was coming but were powerless on the day to do anything about it. As a direct consequence, allied with the poor weather conditions, the clear advantage that Ireland had in midfield was rendered null and void. Once the heavens opened Ireland were goosed.
I cannot recall an international pack with as many dynamic ball carriers as this South African unit, with all but Matfield and new cap Dean Stegmann used repeatedly and effectively in that role. With their scrum also in total control, Tendai Mtawarira ran amok in the loose, regularly sucking in three Irish defenders while creating space for others. No wonder he is such a crowd favourite in Natal. The key is you must make him scrummage and dampen his enthusiasm to cause havoc elsewhere. Ireland failed miserably on that front and Bismark du Plessis, Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies also took it in turn to smash into Irish bodies in broken play.
Ireland’s kicking game was also well off the mark – it was too deep and never offered any opportunities for the chasers to pressurise a dodgy looking South African back three.
Compare that with the measured kicks by the Springboks which even allowed their smaller players such as Bryan Habana and Gio Aplon to compete favourably in the air and retrieve possession.
As usual, Ireland defended bravely with some massive hits going in from the back row of Ferris, Heaslip and Wallace. Heaslip, however, has reason to question himself as to why he failed to release Luke Fitzgerald on a clear overlap in a move which would almost certainly have yielded a try under the posts and the possibility of an unlikely draw.
That decision was symptomatic of much of what Ireland did on a day that should have heralded a new beginning.
Right now the game against Samoa next Saturday has taken on even greater significance. After six consecutive defeats, Ireland just have to get back to winning ways.