There are few more stunning backdrops to an international rugby stadium than the one that greets you on your arrival at Newlands Stadium. Nestled to the rear of the imposing, rugged features that define Table Mountain, it sets the scene perfectly for what lies ahead. This is South Africa, this is Springbok rugby.
If you can prove yourself on this stage, then you have what it takes.
On a historic day for Irish rugby, kickstarted by an incredible win for the U20 side against New Zealand at the Junior World Cup, a whole host of the younger brigade of Irish players, in particular, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Jack McGrath, and Robbie Henshaw, came of age.
To do so in the most adverse of circumstances, after the unfortunate sending off of CJ Stander as a result of his clumsy challenge on Pat Lambie, makes an amazing achievement all the more remarkable
Let’s deal with that red card firstly. While the decision of French referee Mathieu Raynal seemed harsh, it appears to me that what dictates the punishment is more the outcome of the action rather than the action itself. On at least two occasions, the explosive Springbok second row Eben Etzebeth dived recklessly into the ruck, leading with his head. The fact that he made no harmful contact with an Irish player meant his actions went unpunished, even if he could have inflicted terrible damage.
With Lambie being stretchered off as a direct result of Stander’s sloppy challenge, that outcome invited the referee to flash a red card.
That said, there is a duty of care and CJ paid a heavy price.
Somehow, Ireland absorbed that loss and summoned the energy and technical efficiency to outscore South Africa by three points to nil when reduced to 13 after Henshaw saw yellow eight minutes before the break for another high tackle.
Ireland’s defensive effort on the line during that manic period to repel countless Springbok attacks infused the side with the confidence and belief that they could achieve a place in the history books.
The half-time break provided the necessary breathing space and a chance to regroup. They re-entered the fray with a positive attacking mindset that paid dividends with a great try from Conor Murray within three minutes. That provided the impetus to increase the intensity of their efforts.
So many times in the past, in even less demanding circumstances than this, Irish teams have somehow found a way to shoot themselves in the foot with a famous victory in the offering.
When the highly impressive Pieter-Steph du Toit intercepted Paddy Jackson’s pass to score under the posts to cut the Irish lead you just feared the worst.
What got Ireland over the line in the end, however, was the inspired leadership, work rate and direction provided by the senior men in Murray, whose scramble defence was inspirational, Jamie Heaslip who tackled himself to a standstill, Devin Toner and his set-piece excellence, and the craft of captain Rory Best. Add to that the brilliant counter-attacking and offloading game that Jared Payne delivered from full back. He must now be offered the No 15 jersey on a permanent basis.
Had the game been lost on that intercept pass, it would have been cruel in the extreme, given how well Jackson had played. All week, since arriving in Cape Town, all he faced was a barrage of questions about Johnny Sexton. You sensed, however, this was a different, more assured young man to the one thrown in at the deep end of the international game three years ago.
Everything about his play on this occasion bore the hallmarks of a seasoned veteran, from his delightful range of passing, his assured kicking, and his confidence to execute that brilliantly-timed drop goal when Ireland were reduced to 13 men.
If Jackson made a massive statement, then so too did new defence coach Andy Farrell. What a day it proved for him, with his son Owen inspiring an English victory over Australia in Brisbane to provide the perfect backdrop to his first game in charge of Ireland’s defensive organisation. Defensive vulnerability out wide contributed significantly to Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final exit to Argentina last October and continued to plague this side throughout the Six Nations championship. Farrell’s immediate impact and influence was there for all to see with a vastly improved line speed frustrating the South African attack into constant error. They simply couldn’t cope.
In the most pressing of circumstances the positivity of Ireland’s attacking game was a joy to behold and there was no suggestion of just looking to contain, despite their numerical deficiency. The opposite was the case and in that so much credit goes to Payne, whose ability to attack the narrow channels, suck in defenders and execute the most delicate of offloads created havoc and led directly to Murray’s crucial try. That was the score that convinced this Irish side they could win.
Victories of this magnitude don’t come easy and that is what make them even more special. Every single player worked to a standstill in a super-human effort. When your loose-head prop somehow summons the reserves of energy to effect a crucial tackle he had no right to make on the elusive Springbok full back Willie le Roux after 78 minutes of grinding action, you began to appreciate and understand how Ireland came out on top. Jack McGrath delivered that.
He wasn’t alone, with Murray producing three crucial cover tackles, one on Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen three metres from the Irish line when he appeared certain to score. Henderson was similarly effective and Ultan Dillane was like a man possessed when introduced off the bench in the final quarter.
This young Irish squad has achieved something unprecedented and, regardless of what happens in the next two tests, this victory signals a new beginning.
There is now a test series to be won and, while the Springboks are sure to come out fighting next Saturday in Johannesburg, this Irish side has highlighted some serious flaws in the makeup of their South African counterparts.
It has been a horrific few days for Springbok rugby, with their second string side losing to the England Saxons in Bloemfontein on Friday night and their U20’s defeated by Argentina in the Junior World Cup. There is bound to be a reaction.
On the final whistle in Newlands, Table Mountain was no longer visible as darkness descended. In the aftermath of this defeat to Ireland, that darkness has also enveloped Springbok rugby. Can they find a solution in seven days? We will wait and see.
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