This was another outstanding performance by the Irish team beating the World Champions and justifying their World No. 1 ranking. It was a tough grinding encounter with a lot of injuries and with the Springboks seeking to make their superior size and bulk up front tell. But Ireland never flinched from the collisions usually double jobbing with one tackler going low and another seeking to stop the momentum or target the ball.
South Africa’s kicking game wasn’t up to their usual standard both from hand and tee and their half backs didn’t really control the game very well despite edging the possession and territory statistics. Ireland also managed a few line breaks and were unfortunate not to score a try through Sheehan following up his own charge down.
McCloskey had to go off injured early which meant we were down to our fourth choice 12 with Henshaw and Aki also unavailable. He was soon followed by Murray and Furlong which meant our bench was really going to be tested.
Kolbe was fortunate to avoid a red for driving Hansen’s head into the ground, but Ireland couldn’t capitalise on his 10 minute absence and the 6-6 half time score line left things finely balanced. South Africa never lose when ahead at half time, so we looked to be in for a nail biting finish.
Soon after half time Sexton went for the corner with a penalty and VD Flier managed to touch down just as the maul was being driven into touch. He really has had a miraculous 12 months. O’Brien was having a great debut spinning past multiple would be tacklers and then providing the scoring pass for Hansen. Ireland were now playing most of the rugby and built up a ten point lead.
However South Africa came back, as you knew they would, and scored a good try with Mostart reaching for the line. Incredibly, Kolbe’s easy conversion hit a post and Ireland still have a five point lead. Sexton missed both touchline conversions but doesn’t funk going for goal with another touchline penalty. He nails it and gives Ireland a crucial 8 point two score cushion.
On come South Africa again, and eventually they score a fine try out wide by Arendse. But South Africa rarely have to chase a game and cannot now deploy their usual time wasting tactics. Its Ireland who managed to run down the clock with Sexton’s penalty providing the crucial margin of victory.
Normally it is the Springboks famed bomb squad who see out the game but this time Ireland’s bench did us proud. O’Brien had an excellent debut and Gibson Park provided crucial tempo and penetration when he came on. The reserve front row held up well and Treadwell and Conan kept the pack in the game. Ireland’s scrum and maul defence was critical throughout the game.
VD Flier got MOTM but everyone in the team played their part in what was a supreme team effort. I thought Ringrose had a particularly fine game at 13 and then at 12. Ryan and Beirne also did much to counteract the Springbok physicality. I would have liked to have seen Baloucoune get involved more but he did the basics of his job well. You wouldn’t have known it was Keenan’s first game of the season.
It was far from a perfect performance and Farrell will have plenty to work on. But South Africa need to broaden their tactical options when plan A isn’t working, and they have to chase a game. There’s not much point in relying on a kicking game when you don’t have a decent kicker. In the end the Springboks probably missed Pollard more than we missed Henshaw and Aki. The World Cup is going to be a whole new ball game, but for the moment, Ireland remain on top of the world.
Next up, Fiji come calling, having just lost to Scotland. I would give all 15 starters from this game a rest and start our bench players combined with our “A” team starters. They have much to atone for after their performance against the All Black selection, and what better way than to give them a second chance against Fiji.
Frank Schnittger is a former senior executive in a leading multinational in Dublin and London and has a Masters in Peace Studies from Trinity College. He has been a director of a number of charitable and voluntary organisations in the community development, education, holistic addiction treatment and restorative justice sectors. He is editor of the European Tribune and a moderator of the Irish Rugby Fan Forum.