The Joe Schmidt era continued on its upward curve Saturday when Ireland convincingly put away the second ranked team in the world at a raucous Aviva Stadium.
When England won the World Cup in 2003 they placed massive focus on their ability to be able to test themselves and beat the southern hemisphere’s big three ahead of the tournament.
Their reasoning? They wanted to have that achievement in the locker and also they wanted to put doubt into their opponents’ minds when the showpiece event was up and running.
I am not saying we deserve to be favourites for the World Cup less than a year out, but, following on from our Six Nations Championship success and two test wins in Argentina in June, Ireland are now becoming a contender that no one will fancy playing. The win was our first against one of the big three at home since 2009 and, following on from last season’s close call against the All Blacks, is another huge step forward.
Ireland went into the game without 16 players due to injury, which put a huge strain on resources. Rhys Ruddock was called in at the last minute to replace virus-struck Chris Henry and was a contender for man of the match.
Such a performance wasn’t a one-off. In the Six Nations, Dan Tuohy was a match day replacement in the second row yet never put a foot wrong either, which is testament to the level of understanding of roles, systems and responsibilities that seems to be consistent throughout Schmidt’s squad.
The big difference in this Ireland squad is their consistency of performance. The players feel under huge pressure to perform at training and Schmidt will take that performance into account when selecting his team.
By doing that he increased the intensity of the training environment. That level of commitment to extract every last ounce and to use every minute efficiently means that come match day this group of players can implement the gameplan under fatigue and against some of the world’s best players.
There is a great culture in the group and they have an excellent leadership core in terms of the players like O’Connell, Best, Heaslip, Murray, Sexton and Kearney who make sure that their colleagues strive for improvement and progression just as much as the coaches.
The biggest thing that stood out for me on Saturday was the players’ ability to implement the gameplan the coaches had created to beat the South Africans. Ireland looked at the things the Boks traditionally do very well. By focusing such attention on these areas, it sucked energy from the visitors and filled the home side with confidence.
I remember under Eddie O’Sullivan’s tenure, Niall O’Donovan designed a system where he measured all the positive moments Ireland forwards produced and each week the focus was on increasing that figure.
Saturday was a masterclass in such positive moments as time and again the Irish team got the reward for their incredible workrate and the crowd got behind them, which helped the cause even further.
Ireland decided not to engage in the lineout and therefore stopped the Boks using the maul as a way of using their size and power. South Africa like to line up their opponents and physically dominate them, but by kicking the ball nine times in the first 11 minutes alone Ireland denied them that opportunity while their forwards found themselves going backwards through the boot of Sexton and Murray in particular.
Finally, when the Boks tried to get positive carries Ireland chopped them low and our second man in either contested the ball or got into the defensive line quickly. That meant we always had more men on our feet than they did and we were able to use that security to get put them under more pressure with each phase.
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