There is an old rugby aphorism that it is the forwards who decide who wins a match, and the backs decide by how much. The Irish backs decided they weren’t having any of that, dealing with the Springboks kicking game and providing an almost impregnatable wall in defence. Faf De Klerk and Mannie Libbok are a wonderful pair of half backs, but their place kicking can be iffy, and on the night, it was their lack of place kicking accuracy that decided the scoreboard in Ireland’s favour.
As the match progressed you feared for the Irish pack when the Springbok “bomb squad” came onto the pitch. In the end it was the Irish bench which proved the stronger. Dan Sheehan can make a case for being the World’s best hooker, and his line-out throwing is part of that argument. Ireland gradually fixed their line-out problems, and the Irish scrum eventually came out on top when Deon Fourie, a Flanker by trade, replaced Mbonambi at hooker on the 64th. minute.
You can make a case that a fully fit Handre Pollard and Malcolm Marx would have changed the outcome, but Sheehan is also only just coming back from injury, and Conan didn’t make it. Murray showed all his strength and experience when he came on, winning a turnover and providing a key link in the defensive chain. Henshaw showed that South Africa aren’t the only side with world class players on their bench, and Henderson, Bealham, Kilcoyne, Baird and Crowley never took a backward step.
The performance of the referee Ben O’Keefe is also worthy of mention in a test match remarkable for its ferocity. He established his authority early, mostly at Ireland’s expense, but wasn’t afraid to make some tight calls afterwards. South Africa, perhaps more familiar with his style, played him better early on, but that was one more problem Ireland managed to resolve on the hoof as the game went on. Ireland will wonder whatever happened to the one metre gap at line-outs rule, but no doubt South Africa will have their quibbles as well. That there wasn’t so much as a TMO referral, much less a yellow or red card is a tribute to the discipline of both sides.
Aki again took the Man of the Match award, but you could have made a case for many of the team. I would have given the award to Andrew Porter, who played 75 minutes against Malherbe and Nyakane, two of the best tight heads in the business as well as making invaluable contributions in defence and in the loose. Cian Healy continues to be a loss.
The Irish players were quick to point out that Ireland have won nothing yet, and so the post-match celebrations were restrained. It will be difficult to maintain the same standard against Scotland and then the All Blacks, and who knows after that? We could even meet South Africa again in the final if we get that far. They have form in losing a pool match and going on to win the final. Pollard would improve their kicking game, even if he doesn’t provide the same running threat as Libbok.
But perhaps the most heartening aspect of this Irish performance is that we again managed to avoid serious injury and gradually solved all the problems South Africa presented us with. Our line-out and early scrum problems were gradually resolved, and Crowley showed once again, in his brief cameo, that he can live with playing at this level. This was the first serious test Ireland have had since last February, when we beat France 32-19 in the six nations. There is a good deal of improvement in this Irish team yet.
The Irish coaching team can also take full credit for sticking to their guns and not being spooked by the Rassie Erasmus, Jacque Nienaber tactic of a 7:1 bench split. South Africa were lucky they didn’t have any injuries or cards in their backs which could have seriously unbalanced their team. Picking a squad with four scrum halves, no reliable place kicker, and now only one specialist hooker is asking for trouble and could yet be found out as the tournament progresses.
By comparison, the Irish squad looks altogether more balanced with improving strength in depth in almost every department. A fully fit Sheehan and Conan will improve our options, and dare one hope that Healy might be fit again in time if we progress further in the tournament? Jimmy O’Brien is the only squad member yet to see some game time, but that could be rectified against Scotland. He did, after all, feature in our win against South Africa last November.
Although this was the game of the tournament so far, sterner tests await. It will be difficult for the team to reach the same motivational level against Scotland and New Zealand will have had several weeks to sort out their problems against France. Ireland could yet fail to breach their quarter-final ceiling, but this tournament is already a success for the team. A win against the Champions in a World Cup is not to be sneezed at. The team can now take a breather for a week secure in the knowledge they are still on course for the greatest achievement in Irish rugby history.
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.