Rugby can be a mishmash of complex systems and patterns that govern the way that teams play but for all the whiteboard theory and structure, the outcome of a game can be stripped to the bare bones technically, and instead come down to heart and soul as the pistons to drive victory and having the match intelligence to recognise opportunity; and crucially take it.
Therein lies the nub of a colourful, madcap, nerve-shredding, riveting and from an Irish perspective thrilling Rugby World Cup clash between the world champions and the team that tops the global rankings and seeking a 16th consecutive victory. It’s hard to recall a more passionate, vibrant atmosphere at a game. The Ireland fans matched the intensity of the team by providing a supportive soundtrack.
South Africa had opportunities to win that match that came in several forms, the most obvious a litany of missed place-kicks but so too some decent try-scoring chances that they could not convert. The manner of defeat rather than losing will hurt more.
Jacques Nienaber’s side dismantled Ireland’s lineout platform in the first half, thereby decimating a favourite attacking launch pad. They dominated the collisions on both sides of the ball, squeezing the air from Irish ball carriers with brutal aggression in the tackle and introducing several opponents to the ‘sit down’ emporium, as Irish backsides hit the turf first when trying to bring down a Springbok.
Ireland also laboured under the weight of self-inflicted issues, occasional set piece fragility, botched exits on foot of the odd charged-down kick and indiscipline but not once did they become introverted in orientation.
The recurring frustration was merely that Andy Farrell’s side would produce some moments of brilliant rugby only to come a cropper with a tiny error. It was boom-to-bust rugby. Even under ferocious pressure, they didn’t wilt and instead delved into the belief and resolve gleaned from winning big games in New Zealand and during the Six Nations Grand Slam run.
Ireland scrambled for their lives, Garry Ringrose’s brilliant cover tackle on Cheslin Kolbe an early example of how hard the team worked for one another. Ireland have faith in their systems but also in one another. It’s a core constituent of their 16-match unbeaten run.
Two decisions half an hour apart summed it up perfectly. Johnny Sexton turned down three points and went for the corner after two minutes, only for South Africa to pilfer possession. On 33 minutes he didn’t hesitate to hammer the ball into the corner again, doubling down.
It was odds against initially that the gamble would pay off, but the Ireland captain’s vision to step back against the grain and surge for the posts, Hugo Keenan’s clear-out and James Lowe’s quick hands and perfect pass gave Mack Hansen a run-in try, albeit with a zigzag route infield that came perilously close to the end line.
Lowe’s crucial part in the try was symptomatic of the influence he enjoyed in several other pivotal moments, and it wasn’t in the orthodox fashion of wing play for which he is celebrated. He is used as a left-footed kicking option and, except for one partially blocked, he fulfilled the role admirably. He was dunted in one tackle, but assured thereafter.
He epitomised the general graft of the team. In the first half he won a turnover penalty at a breakdown near the halfway line. Lowe was the player to get back and collar RG Snyman — he had a superb impact off the bench — who had broken through the initial defensive line.
It was he who lifted Eben Etzebeth up in the air in a tackle and with support from his team-mates they were able to keep the giant Springbok up and win a scrum turnover in possession. Finally, there was his strip/rip about 2m from Ireland’s try line that averted what seemed an inevitable South African score.
The Springboks’ suffocating defence and ability to shut off the supply not only to Lowe, but Mack Hansen was reflected in the fact that the two Irish wings made just 10m combined. Ringrose made four, so it just puts into perspective Bundee Aki’s astonishing 66m from 14 carries, four defenders beaten, one clean break and one offload.
If many of Lowe’s most telling impacts came in and around the breakdown, it seems only fair that Andrew Porter should demonstrate the fluidity of role play, by popping up regularly in the midfield to thunder into contact.
In one sequence of play alone in the build-up to the penalty that preempted Hansen’s try; Ireland’s loosehead carried a staggering four times in 90 seconds into multiple tacklers.
The fact that he kept going for 74 minutes is remarkable while both he and Tadhg Furlong deserve a hefty dollop of praise for the manner in which they largely achieved parity with the ‘Bok scrum in the penalty and free kick stages.
A word too on Ireland’s breakdown work, which pilfered a few turnovers, slowed Springbok ball and prevented them from being able to get to the edges quickly. Look at the number of times that Faf de Klerk kicked off static possession.
The Irish management and players understand Ireland’s performance shortcomings improve but so too content to acknowledge that resilience and attitude are essential components when it comes to winning matches.