By dropping the pace we let Boks set the tempo
ANALYSIS: Don’t ever dance with the bear, because the bear decides when the music stops!
As the Dropkick Murphys unloaded I’m Shipping Up To Boston and the stadium exploded in fireworks the Springboks looked decidedly disinterested, bunched loosely awaiting the entry of An tUachtaráin. Body language tells a lot and the South Africans were very casual which excited me. That all changed in the second half as the bear decided to stop the music through brutal physicality, pounding Ireland in a manner that only real pace could negotiate.
There were many good points in both style and personnel to comfort us beyond the result. I’m delighted that the secondrows were superb where Mike McCarthy was a joy to watch. It wasn’t necessarily what McCarthy did but how he did it. He was the leading tackler on the Ireland side but all his tackles were offensive, stopping the Boks dead. He was also very comfortable defensively in open space which for a big man can be very lonely. When carrying the ball he has the ability to truck up crap and when the option arrives can circle pass, spin pass or simply pass. He is a real footballer but in forcing myself to watch him off the ball I’m glad to report there is real dog in him also. Jonathan Sexton’s third penalty came from a team move left to right but McCarthy got on the ball twice. There is real merit in aligning him with Paul O’Connell but for O’Connell to remain the enforcer in the number four jersey with McCarthy the footballer.
However, the lineout misfired, for many reasons, but will improve.
Along with McCarthy, others shone such as hooker Richardt Strauss who managed Amhrán na bhFiann before things got tasty. His cousin in particular was a specimen to behold in the tight and out wide, as was Jean de Villiers who has perfected the hard inside line.
There is a niggling nastiness about what the Boks do, not just resorting to massive contact, which was all that remained in check when Ireland kept the pace up. As soon as it dropped the contact became a war of attrition. Where Keith Earls had been dancing beautifully, leaving Springbok winger Francois Hougaard for dead, now he was triple teamed.
In fact, the sheer size of them brings style into immediate focus. Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe were symbiotic in their blossoming relationship, finding total connectivity in the tightest of spaces.
How Gordon D’Arcy wasn’t killed in the opening 40 minutes for every inch he eked I’ll never know. Understandably he and others tired towards the end. That said, why 124 capped Ronan OGara comes on for five minutes to shift Sexton out one is beyond me. What is the value in that? Would five minutes (or more) for Ian Keatley or others be of far more benefit?
Amid his myriad roles, Jonathan Sexton’s defence was superb, putting his body on the line getting battered and bruised but never leaving the ring.
With the pace of a match and the bullock of the Boks it was crucial to keep the ball moving. Several three pointers were earned from the lineout but sometimes these were a poor reward for positive periods. Two things sprung to mind.
On 8 minutes and 20 seconds an attacking lineout on the Springbok ten metre line drifted wide of its intended target Peter O’Mahony. Sexton nailed the subsequent penalty to bring it to six points to nil which against the big three is a big step. That said, Ireland failed to gain real momentum and multiphases to threaten the Springbok try line.
Secondly the lineout options didn’t react quickly enough to the misfiring, further stunting Ireland’s momentum. Interestingly once again on the South African ten metre line, with JP Pietersen in the bin, Ireland mauled the lineout and chose to box kick poorly. Concession of the ball and the subsequent chase was far too cheap.
Thankfully, there exists a real opportunity to build. Considering the personnel available, pace is the key. To generate multiphase pacey ball, matched with tactical nous, a broader look at the scrumhalves is required where Paul Marshall, Kieran Marmion and Eoin Reddan have brought an abundance of pace over recent weeks.
An obvious concern at the time was the costly entry of South African Heinke van der Merwe to the Irish scrum and the score board. Michael Bent lapped up the opportunity and in fairness to Declan Kidney he reacted quickly to the changed environment unloading the bench while the Test was still in the balance.
With Argentinas win over Wales and our loss to the Boks, enormous pressure will be on the Irish camp but I adored the first 40 minutes which were full of invention, pace and selective targets where Earls and others left the Boks for dead. But along came the second half and the bear had changed mood; it was intent on pummelling the Irish over the line. To combat this, Ireland needed to improve the source of the ball and up the pace.
This can lead to exciting times ahead, with a fine tuning of personnel to get the most out of the style with us deciding when the music stops.