My first Ireland rugby tour was to South Africa in 2004, an experience that proved to be as much a culture shock on the pitch as off. The sheltered life of a young lad from Wexford by way of south Dublin was light years removed from the sights and sounds of Bloemfontein and Cape Town, where a melting pot of cultures converged.
South African rugby supporters bring an intensity and passion that occasionally manifests in a bizarre context as was the case with one abiding memory from that tour. The Ireland team bus stopped outside the giant gates of Vodacom Park as it was then in Bloemfontein waiting to be admitted when we became aware of a violent rocking motion.
The locals had decided to welcome us by pushing the bus from side to side, a reminder that we were on their turf. It wasn’t the only time that I was buffeted that day. The match posed huge physical challenges. Space was at a premium; the hits were late and not unduly concerned whether the ball was around or not.
Bakkies Botha scored two tries, the Springboks centre partnership of Marius Joubert and Wayne Julies operated a high press in defence that while we prepped for was still deeply unnerving. Another try scorer from that match was Pedrie Wannenburg, tragically killed in a car crash in America last week.
My trip down memory lane was inspired by watching the Sharks victory over Leinster in the United Rugby Championship (URC) match in Durban last weekend. Makazole Mapimpi's intercept try, which left Leinster's three man overlap in smithereens, is something of a trademark for South African wings. Bryan Habana was masterful in that capacity.
The URC match was a clash of styles, the Sharks looked to impose their superior bulk and power. In all my years playing against and watching the Springboks those rugby patterns have evolved very little. Northern hemisphere teams are rarely able to match fire with fire in the physical stakes, so the Leinster youngsters had to adopt a playing template that focused on being smarter.
Taking another look at the Mapimpi intercept, by the time Leinster outhalf Harry Byrne had received the ball, the Sharks' defensive line had passed the midpoint of the lineout – if you were to draw a line from the hooker to the other side of the pitch – and had closed the space and as a result most of the running options.
Ciaran Frawley's floated pass to Rory O'Loughlin put the latter in an impossible position. O'Loughlin sees the picture of the overlap right up until Shark's centre Ben Tapaui crowds him physically. The desire not to get caught behind the gain-line with no momentum overrides all other decisions and so he tries to push the pass to Jamie Osborne. Mapimpi read the intention and intercepted.
All this takes place in a couple of seconds but not by chance and it’s something that players are going to have to get used to when facing South African teams. They like to insinuate themselves in the opposition backfield.
The Stormers, whom Leinster face on Saturday, will not give the visitors as much latitude as perhaps the Sharks offered
There was much to admire in the way that a young Leinster team fought back in a contest that looked like it could get a bit ugly for the visitors from time to time. Leo Cullen’s side operated on the principle that bigger teams don’t like to be hustled and harried, with and without the ball, and that quick thinking, good hands and front foot possession can unlock any team.
Attacking initially from just shy of their goal-line and on penalty advantage, Frawley’s perfectly weighted cross-kick was snapped up by Tommy O’Brien; the try required a great deal of finishing, but the young Leinster wing was up to the task, as he was all night.
A bonus point was a decent return, albeit that they had a chance to win the match at the death. Experience might have guaranteed that victory. The Stormers, whom Leinster face on Saturday will not give the visitors as much latitude as perhaps the Sharks offered. They will want to lay down a physical marker for another tussle later in the tournament.
Andrew Porter, Jack Dunne and co will need to try and ensure that Leinster have a platform from which to attack because that's going to be their best form of defence.
As I looked at how the table has changed in a couple of weeks, Ulster's recent performance and defeat to Munster puts their season squarely into focus. I thoroughly enjoyed that match and Munster did exactly what I expected they would in victory. They rode the wave of momentum into Ravenhill and left with the points.
There will be a fair amount of soul searching going on up north, having finished on the wrong side of results in recent ‘must win’ matches. Dan McFarland’s squad feels stretched, and the lack of firepower in the tight five, is continuing to exacerbate other playing issues, as does some of the selections.
I fully accept that hindsight is not a fair lens to look back through but for me the selection of Mike Lowry at outhalf seemed to come completely out of left field. Lowry has often spoken of wanting to play 10 – I often said I preferred outside centre but some other bloke was better apparently – but he has spent the entire season prior to last weekend in the 15 jersey.
Sometimes you do wonder why anyone would be a coach as they are judged so harshly in moments like these, but I cannot understand the logic behind it. All of Lowry’s minutes are at 15, where he can operate as a second playmaker, but his USP has been about his ability to break the line and create sweeping counterattack opportunities.
Even had Ulster scraped the win, there would have been plenty of people scratching their heads at the selection. The way Lowry shapes and plays at 15 would do little to prepare him when being parachuted into the pivotal game of the season. His distribution looked off, decision making was a split second behind the play and had the look of a guy who had not played much rugby at 10 in a long time.
Ian Madigan would have made a more logical choice, or at the very least introduce him before 70 minutes which was way too late as Ulster sought a change and charge to challenge the result. It did ultimately arrive, and was in part due to Madigan's introduction, but also that Munster at that point were focused on protecting a result; they failed to keep playing.
When the visitors did play, they were good. Damian De Allende epitomised Munster's good qualities on the night. He was at his physical, abrasive best and was at first receiver in the build up to Keith Earls try. He chivvied the players around him to respond and click into gear.
A delayed pass parted the Ulster defence and created a hole for Jason Jenkins to rumble through and offload. A second touch from the Springbok centre opened up the whole pitch outside him. At 21-10 in Munster's favour, they stopped playing, kicked more and began to rely on defence and turnovers.
To me this brought Ulster back into the game far more than the home side deserved on the merit of their efforts to that point.
There must be a lingering frustration to being a Munster supporter in that they should be putting away teams more effectively than they are at present. In that final quarter in Belfast, they should have been able to kick on and put Ulster to the sword rather than having to rely on a last minute penalty to make it a two-score game.
They will need to discover that ruthlessness in the coming weeks, otherwise better teams will make them pay. Is Johann van Graan still in charge or has the baton been passed because I do wonder who is making the decisions now. The body language and influence points to Graham Rowntree but the 'power' technically lies with Van Graan.
Surely it would be worth suggesting that Van Graan step back from direct control to give Rowntree the opportunity to manage an extra four or five matches? Could that be the impetus to take Munster in a slightly less predictable direction and make them a more dangerous prospect in the knockout stages of both competitions.
Ulster and Munster’s fortunes have largely been akin to ships passing in the night, Ulster setting the pace in the early sessions but now untimely floundering to save their season. As a player, I’ve been there before and there are moments behind closed doors, away from prying eyes, when you wonder how exactly you ended up here.
This is very much the case for some Ulster players who will now need at the third time of asking, to dust themselves off and try to find a way to generate a result, away in Edinburgh. Games are won by actions and not words and the Ulster players have to individually take responsibility rather than looking around for someone else to provide the leadership.
Ulster as a group need to appreciate that in time to ensure a different outcome to the frustration of the last couple of weeks.