I brought three games with me for company on Racing Metro’s trip to Hong Kong. I’ve made a number of bullet points arising from the game in Dublin against South Africa. Make of them what you will. Jet lag can only explain away so much of the madness.
Incredible defence and an unbelievable appetite to work for each other. Even though Johnny Sexton landed six out of six shots at goal, Ireland’s kicking game was average, but the outcomes were good, if you understand me. Willie Le Roux, on the other hand, had a couple of sublime moments, but too many indifferent ones. And some of his poorer moments were very poor. The full-back, Serfontein, Hougaard and Pollard all had poor games for the Springboks. When you have four of the backline out of sorts, it’s very hard to win any game. Joe Schmidt won’t need telling, Australia will be so much more competent with ball in hand tomorrow week at the Aviva. But Ireland were very clinical. And when your kicker makes six out of six, it’s going to be tough to beat us at the Aviva any time.
The world is a smaller place these days. Isa Nacewa was part of the reason Joe Schmidt came to Leinster. He’s now back with the Blues in Auckland. It will only be jealousy or something nasty that prevents Schmidt from becoming an All Black coach. He may even replace Steve Hansen. From what I hear from the Irish players, he is a peerless coach.
Twelve months ago, he started his Irish tenure with a disappointing display and defeat to Australia. The players’ heads were full of instructions from Joe. They were so worried about performing their role correctly that they displayed no intensity. A year on, the Schmidt mantra is deeply ingrained, each player knows how he operates and what’s needed Monday to Friday. Then on Saturday it’s bang-bang; they are doing everything with ruthless execution.
The sweetest thing for Schmidt is not necessarily the victory — it’s the little nudge it gives the likes of Healy, O’Brien, McFadden, Trimble, Best, Dave Kearney, Earls and Luke Fitzgerald this week.
All of a sudden, 30 doesn’t look too big a squad at all.
It was a one-score game when the Boks front row was yellow carded. That closed the door on South Africa. I don’t think referee Romain Poite had a good day at the office, but he’s his own man and that’s all you can ask for. Paul O’Connell won the battle of the captains in this regard. His relationship with Poite would be testy to say the least, but Paulie’s body language and the way he used his eyes and facial expressions said a multitude to the French referee.
How are we supposed to interpret South Africa’s tactic of spurning three-point opportunities? That was slightly bizarre. This had to be a decision taken before the game. Sometimes you have to get the feel of a game before making those decisions. The Boks seemed to underestimate how good a “weakened” Ireland would be, and in those circumstances, they’d have been better adapting their train of thought, accept that this game will be tight and go after points.
I’m looking at my notes. It was the 67th minute, when he drilled a beautiful spiral over the Springbok cover and deep into the 22 that he really took the handbrake off. Before that, he had three penalties to touch, and the longest gain was 20 metres. He really went up a gear in the final quarter in terms of finding touch. For the first 20 minutes his ball striking was average but you could see him growing more and more into the game with each successful kick. By the time Ireland got on top, he was playing his best rugby, really clinical with his kicking. He played a pivotal part in the decisive try, making a half break and making quick ruck ball with perfect ball placement.
Ideally Conor Murray’s kick should go straight into Tommy Bowe’s hands because you want to take out the risk factor of a bouncing ball. But Tommy was brave and he got rewarded. Being nominated for IRB world player of the year won’t do Johnny’s confidence any harm, a tremendous honour.
Slightly bemused, mind you, that there’s no sign of Kieran Read, Israel Falau and Aaron Cruden on the short-list.
Finding touch with a penalty is a risk and reward thing. If you go for it and you miss too long, resulting in a scrum back, it’s an awful deflator. Failing to find touch is a more acceptable mistake than being extra greedy and going touch-in-goal. That’s ground-swallow-me-up territory. It has become more acceptable to be ultra-conservative, thanks to Jonny Wilkinson. You’d always like to get the extra metres. The rolling maul was big for Munster and Ireland, so anytime you had the opportunity, you tried to maximise it. It’s all down to confidence though. Some days it’s so easy spiralling to touch, and others when your brain isn’t fully functioning and cluttered with 15 different things, it isn’t great. If you have a wonky first or second one, you’re examining all your trigger points and routines instead of smoothing it.
Three more years for Tommy Bowe, and the IRFU must be feeling pleased with this piece of business. Bowe had a good game last Saturday but some very big moments. First half, Ireland lose their own lineout five metres from their line; Watch the defence and the trust between Peter O’Mahony and Bowe. Willie le Roux is in 20m of space with Bryan Habana outside him. Nine times out of 10, the defensive winger will step in there, not trusting his 6 to defend le Roux. But Bowe trusts his man and squares Habana up for a one-on-one, driving him into touch.
The Ulster winger also started the move back in his own corner for the first try. The ability to win ball off his own half-Garryowen. Henshaw kicks, gets a great bounce, le Roux forced into a left-foot-to-right-hand-touchline. No angle. That all started with Bowe, who could have kicked long, aimless or into touch. He backed himself, won it in the air, won the ruck. The small things you notice on a flight to Hong Kong.