Joe Schmidt’s Ireland played safe, smart rugby in dispatching South Africa on Saturday and made a mockery of their underdog status with the bookmakers.
The 29-15 scoreline was comprehensive; only once have Ireland bettered that margin of victory against a Springbok side (32-15 in November 2006).
The Irish half-backs managed the game beautifully, no better than when South Africa had just 14 on the field in the second half. Jonathan Sexton’s beautiful, raking spiral into touch on the South African five metre line in the 67th minute led ultimately to a converted penalty. Barely five minutes later, a clever kick into the same corner by Conor Murray to a charging Tommy Bowe resulted in a converted try, sealing the match.
Ireland had also led at half time, but perhaps luckily. According to southern hemisphere stats outfit RuckinGoodStats Ireland had just two entries into the Springbok 22 in the first 40, coming back with points both times, whereas South Africa had seven 22 entries but were only successful once. Hence Ireland’s 6-3 half time lead.
Those wasted opportunities were part of a South African theme. While Ireland executed a game-plan well and showed excellent basic skills — just one pass off target and three dropped balls — South Africa passed five balls off target, including an incomplete pass that went over the sideline, and had nine drops.
After 58 minutes it would also have been a reasonable expectancy that, come the final whistle, Schmidt would be very unhappy with team discipline.
Ireland had just conceded their tenth penalty. The most penalties an Ireland team had conceded under Schmidt was 11 against Wales in last season’s Six Nations. A new high was surely coming. However, in that final 22 minutes Ireland would not concede a single penalty, forcing South Africa to concede six. The discipline shown in those closing stages, including those game-sealing 10 points when South Africa were down to 14 men, was incredible.
The Irish game-plan demonstrated a continuation of the safety-first approach to carrying into contact in the Schmidt era.
Irish ball carriers under Schmidt are not encouraged to offload to the supporting runner. Instead, the strategy involves the carrier winning the initial contact, trusting that the first one or two team-mates will clear out the defenders instantly while he presents the ball safely, quickly and accurately. And all under three seconds.
That non-offloading game was taken to extremes on Saturday where Opta didn’t record a single offload by an Irish player in the match. The French and Fijians would be horrified, but this is the Joe Schmidt way.
And when that strategy contributes to results like Saturday’s, who could argue?
* All playing stats courtesy of OPTA
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