Springboks' power proves crucial as Ireland can't quite get over the line
MATCH REPORT: Ireland 12 South Africa 16The bravery, the effort, the resilience, the enthusiasm and even much of the ambition couldn’t be faulted. A rejigged and refreshed Irish team put their bodies on the line but, not unexpectedly, the absence of so many big hitters left them just a little light in ball carriers.
Heyneke Meyer spoke afterwards of the Boks having a few soft moments in the first-half, “but there were no soft moments in the second-half”.
No, Springboks don’t do soft. In all bar one forward head-to-head the Boks were bigger, on average by five kilos a man in the pack, and even as Mike McCarthy, Ireland’s most explosive performer in the contact zone, and the rest were taking the fight to South Africa in the first half the unrelenting ferocity of the collisions made you wonder if this lighter Irish side could withstand such physical intensity over 80 minutes.
You also wondered if the Springboks’ error count would be reduced as they found their rhythm. Sure enough, in the event Ireland could not quite do so, whereas South Africa, with Ruan Pienaar assuming control, did.
The Irish defence withstood the battering and straight hard running very well, with good line speed and tackling accuracy in the 10-12-13 axis, and there was a better shape to Ireland’s attack, with decoy runners and trailers, though at times their back play was quite lateral, and for all their willing carrying into contact, they couldn’t penetrate.
It was a slugfest at the breakdown, and well though Chris Henry, McCarthy, Richardt Strauss and others did generate turnovers or slow down ball, even when Ireland began to attack narrowly they couldn’t generate quick enough ball themselves.
Still, their positivity and greater accuracy for much of the first half enabled Jonathan Sexton to deservedly push them 12-3 ahead at the interval, though, in truth, the game had begun to slip away from them in the last ten minutes of the half after JP Pietersen had been sinbinned for his early, high shoulder charge on Chris Henry.
Ireland let this initiative slip away when Conor Murray elected to box kick off a lineout drive about 35 metres out.
But even then Jonathan Sexton, who had struck four penalties beautifully, just shaved the left upright with an angled 45-metre penalty.
Had Bowe been able to hold onto Sexton’s up-and-under the second half might have begun differently.
Instead, South Africa worked their way into Irish territory, their lineout maul earning a yellow card for Jamie Heaslip and from the ensuing penalty and pressure, Pienaar scored the game’s decisive try.
Andrew Trimble then compounded fingertipping a Hougaard kick into touch by conceding another lineout outside the Irish 22 with a poor kick from a hard-won turnover won by Healy, which led to a scrum penalty against Mike Ross and Pat Lambie making it 16-12.
Earlier in the day, Irish supporters would have been encouraged as the news filtered through that Tendai “the Beast” Mtawarira had been ruled out on the day of the game with heart problems which also can’t have been pleasant news within the South African camp itself. It meant that the former Leinster player CJ van der Linde, nominally a tighthead, had to start at loosehead against Mike Ross.
It also meant yet another Leinster man, Heinke van der Meuwe was promoted to the bench, and his introduction past the hour against a tiring Ross helped turn the screw.
In keeping with a game that featured four props and a hooker from Leinster (surely a record) as well as a former Leinster prop, this prompted Declan Kidney to introduce Michael Bent for his debut (fittingly enough in all black) on his first game in this country. With the benefit of hindsight, Kidney and co might even privately wish they’d brought him in a little sooner.
Both a cause and a result of the turnaround was the penalty count, which had been 11-5 to Ireland in the first half but was the exact reverse in the second.
Wayne Barnes’s interpretations at the breakdown were as curiously inconsistent as ever, particularly in ensuring tacklers released after the tackle and he was, at any rate, highly selective in applying it; a classic case being the late penalty against Donnacha Ryan for not releasing the ball when Duane Vermeulen hadn’t disengaged after the tackle.
Pietersen’s yellow card was also the only penalty conceded by the Boks for foul play, and quite how all three officials missed every other cheap shot and act of skulduggery was remarkable.
At one point Etzebeth punched McCarthy in the face literally a foot or two in front of the watching Steve Walsh during the Boks’ drive which led to Heaslip’s yellow card and the ensuing Pienaar try.
Sexton, for one, was clearly targeted, his first injury the result of Jannie du Plessis diving shoulder first into the Irish out-half after he had tackled Pietersen at the second attempt.
Yet, ultimately, the result was about right as the Springboks upped the ante in the second half and, try though they might, Ireland could never generate the hint of a try.
Thrice they went through lengthy phases, but whether running laterally wide or harder and straighter closer in, with Cian Healy making one astonishing carry for a prop in the last ten minutes, they couldn’t break through.
Indeed they were limited to one long-range penalty attempt by Sexton.
There will remain a nagging regret that this developing South African side were vulnerable, if not quite there for the taking, in a rusty, error-strewn first-half performance especially. But, not unexpectedly, Ireland were lacking a little ballast in the ball-carrying department without Stephen Ferris and Seán O’Brien.
The anti-climactic groan which greeted Ronan O’Gara’s chip in overtime which extinguished the last hint of hope rather summed up the evening.