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Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland may lack strength in depth but they are outperforming expectations

Andy Farrell’s squad will look back at the 80 minutes against South Africa and know they gave a credible account of themselves

Ireland and South Africa players compete in a scrum during their Test match at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria on Saturday. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

South Africa were deserved winners last Saturday in Loftus Versfeld. So were New Zealand and Australia, with Felipe Contepomi’s Argentina the outlier of the southern hemisphere teams as they struggled against a youthful-looking French.

I wrote last week that winning on the road is tough and that is exactly what transpired over the weekend. Watching the matches, mostly the England and Ireland ones, the momentum always felt in favour of the home team. Yet the scoreboard told a different story, England and the All Blacks tying 10 apiece and Ireland trailing 13-8 to the Springboks at half-time.

However, in the second half, pressure and home advantage was enough to just about steer the host teams home.

Ireland will look back at the 80 minutes and know they gave a credible account of themselves, and with the slightest bit of luck could have won the game. That is what good teams do. They find a way to stay in the game and Ireland did exactly that in the final quarter, with Conor Murray’s try keeping Ireland within touching distance.


A penalty try for the South African “bomb squad” proved to be the difference, with that backwards-moving scrum reopening an uncomfortable limitation in the Irish system.

Are we regularly able to produce enough players of a high-enough standard to live with the traditional heavyweights of world rugby?

Where possible, Ireland, South Africa and Argentina opted for similar squads to their World Cup rosters, with the Boks having the luxury of mixing their overseas players with the best of the domestic URC talent such as Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu and Eben Etzebeth.

Sam Prendergast at Ireland Rugby Squad training in Johannesburg. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

But Ireland and Argentina are limited by their playing base, which contrasts with other nations such as France. There, former Munster centre Antoine Frisch was one of 22 uncapped players head coach Fabien Galthié included in the squad currently touring Argentina.

England and New Zealand have rewarded form and have blended that with experience. Even Australia, under Joe Schmidt, selected seven potential debutants against Wales.

The lack of rotation in the Irish team suggests that there is not enough quality or potential underneath some of the incumbents, with Sam Prendergast the obvious exception and selected purely on his potential.

This isn’t a criticism of any of the players, simply a reflection of our current system, where we do not see a lot of young talent forcing their way into our four professional club teams.

Courageous Ireland performance comes up short as South Africa take first TestOpens in new window ]

As the professional era has rolled along, Ireland have steadily risen through the ranks from eighth in the early 2000s to the top five post-Grand Slam success in 2010 and over the last five years earning the world number one ranking twice.

However, our system has not evolved. It is only logical that as the margins narrow against larger, well-stocked nations, any inadequacies become starker.

A squad’s strength in depth becomes relevant when there are injuries, or when the Springboks unload six fresh forwards to win matches in the last third of the game, as they did against Ireland.

South Africa's Siya Kolisi runs with the ball during the Test match between South Africa and Ireland at Loftus Versfeld stadium. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

The Irish system is, however, adept at minimising these moments, by keeping players fit and available for selection for most of the rugby calendar.

Ireland consistently outperforms with its existing structures. But breaking the barrier at World Cups requires rethinking and re-evaluating of how we bring players through to the professional game across all pathways.

Defensive systems have evolved so much in the professional era that the attack is struggling to catch up, and much has been made of the new South African attack in the first Test against Ireland.

Realistically they have adopted a wider shape, with Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi spending more time in the wider channels. The opening try against Ireland was superb to watch, was crucially underpinned by strong fundamentals and involved a lovely bit of skill from Kolisi to put Kurt-Lee Arendse away.

Ireland regathered and, while the hosts stretched Ireland, the Springboks defaulted to type when the game swayed in the balance.

A wrinkle appeared in the South African defence for Murray’s try, with lovely running lines and timing from Finley Bealham.

Ireland's Jamie Osborne dives over for a try at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Elsewhere it was individual moments of skill that unlocked the South African defence. It took vision from Jack Crowley to get the ball into space for Dan Sheehan to deliver a deft no-look pass to James Lowe wrapping around. In turn Lowe found a way to keep the ball in play for Jamie Osborne to slide over.

Lowe engaged two defenders, which opened the gap for Osborne, and he had the skill set and mentality needed to get the ball away. It has and always will be simple skills delivered under intense pressure.

More and more moments like these are the key to breaking down defences, although building shapes and patterns get so much more focus and attention. The attack “system” is designed to created opportunities but there is no prescription for execution. That continues to remain with the individual.

For the last game on the road on Saturday after an incredibly long season, much will come down to preparation.

I remember in the 2006 summer tour we narrowly lost against New Zealand in the first two Test matches. Rather than that spring-boarding us to Australia for the final Test, we ran out of physical and emotional energy.

However, Andy Farrell and his coaching team delivered another masterclass in individual and collective preparation last week by shaking off domestic club defeat, long-season fatigue and showing up.

I think these players are different under Farrell in that they almost always outperform expectations and I think we will see that continue again this weekend in Durban.