Everybody loves to see the schoolyard bully getting a bloody nose now and again and that’s exactly what happened when South Africa pitched up at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
The look of bewilderment on the face of Springbok full-back Willie Le Roux when he fumbled possession after running down yet another blind alley with nine minutes left summed up perfectly the position the visitors found themselves in. They were left with nowhere to turn.
Every time it looked as if a gap was about to open for a monstrous South African ball-carrier to make inroads, an Irish body came hurtling from nowhere to cut him off at the pass. Ireland’s commitment in defence was both inspirational and sustained throughout the entire 80 pulsating minutes of Saturday’s 29-15 victory over the Boks.
After what happened last season against New Zealand, it was inevitable that doubts would surface when South Africa closed the gap to three points entering the final quarter with three World Cup winners — Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger and JP Pietersen — sprung from the bench. Thankfully all those harbouring such thoughts were sitting in the stands.
For Ireland to produce a performance of this intensity in the opening international of the season against such high-quality opposition speaks volumes for the work being done behind the scenes.
To do so without a few of seasoned campaigners and then be hit a further hammer blow with the 11th-hour withdrawal of Chris Henry due to a viral infection makes this achievement all the sweeter. When the challenge was laid down and the odds stacked against them, as a collective this Ireland team role manfully to the task.
Nobody understands what it takes to beat the Springboks better than New Zealand. After all they have managed that feat on more occasions than anyone else. Having grown up in that culture and rugby environment, perhaps it is no coincidence that Joe Schmidt knew exactly what was required to produce a result that few saw coming.
While Ireland enjoyed successive home wins over South Africa in 2004, 2006 and 2009, this victory was the most comprehensive and satisfying given the problems encountered in the build-up compared to the seamless preparations enjoyed by the visitors.
Starting with the same 15 that scored three tries in the spectacular 27-25 win over New Zealand only five weeks ago, this was a team brimming with confidence and in their minds, very close to the finished article with the World Cup coming into focus.
For that, massive credit must go to Schmidt for masterminding this performance and for instilling an unwavering belief in a number of players who, but for injury to others, would have been watching this one from the sideline.
His decision to omit Gordon D’Arcy, who was fit to start and indeed took a full part in the intricate team warm-up 30 minutes before kick-off, on the basis that he missed the key tactical prep sessions conducted over the previous weeks camp, sent a message to the squad.
Schmidt had a plan to beat South Africa and crucially had the confidence in those who were fit to train last week to implement it. Nobody saw a midfield combination of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw starting such a demanding opening test as this but Schmidt liked what he saw in training and backed his judgement.
He was rewarded spectacularly, with both players contributing handsomely to a magnificent team performance. Henshaw complemented his defensive duties with some assured handling and one measured tactical kick which yielded the field position for Ruddock’s crucial try three minutes after the break.
The biggest concern coming into the game centred on the scrum with Cian Healy and Rory Best ruled out and Mike Ross troubled with a groin problem. While South Africa did enjoy a measure of success in this area, most notably in the third quarter, they never fully drove that advantage home and made one very poor decision to opt for a five metre line out having just won a penalty for dismantling the Irish scrum. The relief on the faces of the Irish front row was manifestly evident.
In the circumstances Ross put in a heroic shift and managed to stay the pace a lot longer than was thought possible given his recent lack of games. He was one of several senior players, including Rob Kearney and Paul O’Connell, to take responsibility and lead the charge.
Credit too must go to new forwards coach Simon Easterby for the manner in which he restricted the influence of the powerful Springbok maul for long periods. Ireland managed this through the calculated ploy of not engaging with the opposition when standing off at line outs in pre-determined areas of the pitch.
With no Ireland player attached to the South African maul, it was deemed to be open play, with Jack McGrath earmarked to come around and tackle the Springbok player in possession at the tail on the non-functioning maul. It is a very risky manoeuvre for if any Irish player got his timing wrong and was pulled into contact, South Africa were free to rumble.
Ireland also successfully targeted the one potential weak link in the South African chain when piling the pressure on scrum-half Francois Hougaard. A converted winger, he is third choice behind the injured Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar. A dangerous attacking threat when offered an armchair ride behind a bulldozing Springbok or Blue Bulls pack, but with Ireland competing ferociously at the breakdown and piling the pressure on him, he was unable to cope. His passing game fell to pieces and outside him, young Handre Pollard would have needed a butterfly net to retrieve some of his deliveries.
Ireland had a marked superiority at half-back coming into this contest and did they make it count. With good reason Heyneke Mayer was fearful of Johnny Sexton’s game management skills and tactical acumen with the boot. He broke their hearts. Inside him Conor Murray was equally effective with his pinpoint floater from the boot for Tommy Bowe’s clinching try a thing of beauty. The ten points that Ireland registered when Springbok hooker Adriaan Strauss was yellow-carded for a sloppy midair tackle on Kearney is exactly the type of ruthlessness that was required to put this contest to bed.
Everywhere you looked there were Irish players standing up to be counted, none more so than in a hugely combative back row of Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony and Ruddock. The number of turnovers and penalties generated by an Irish player supporting the tackler in contact was testament to the work done in training. That just doesn’t happen by accident.
The most tangible reward from this result will only be seen down the line. Competition within the squad is set to increase when the injuries lighten up and that is exactly what is required to tackle the grinding requirements presented by the knockout stages of a World Cup.
The aim now is to see out this November series with a clean sweep of three wins. With a big southern hemisphere scalp already secured, on the back of last season’s Six Nations win, the confidence level within the group is set to rise another level.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved