Ireland stand up and fight and eventually out-smart Springboks
Ireland smarter in seeking out space as well as collisions, and more opportunistic
Ireland’s Rhys Ruddock makes a break for the tryline with the support of Paul O’Connell during Ireland’s victory over South Africa on Saturday. Photograph: Colm O’Neill/Inpho
Ireland 29 South Africa 15
After the biffing and boshing Ireland took in the second quarter, the 6-3 lead looked a little flimsy and there were hints of two years ago when the Springboks muscled their way back from a 12-3 half-time deficit to win 16-12.
But this time biff, bang, bosh wasn’t enough, and Ireland proved to be equally as brave, much smarter in seeking out space as well as collisions, and more opportunistic.
First off, of course, rugby is a fight, and never more so than when squaring up to the Springboks. The Boks were, as expected, stronger in the set-pieces and very quick over the ball, so Ireland had to stand up and fight. And how they did, making 143 tackles to South Africa’s 71, missing 26 but scrambling brilliantly to limit the damage.
Paul O’Connell typically, and Jack McGrath, led the way with 17 apiece, followed by Rhys Ruddock (who produced his best game of the season in an unfamiliar seven role as a replacement on the day for Chris Henry) and, of course Jamie Heaslip, on 14.
Mike Ross, at 35 and without a game for a month, has to be mentioned for his nine tackles and ditto the remarkable Johnny Sexton. It wasn’t just the effort, it was the collective organisation and concentration as well.
Evidence of how monumental an effort it was came with the respective use of the benches.
By the time Ireland made their first replacement, Richardt Strauss coming on for Seán Cronin in the 59th minute, his cousin Adrian had already been one of four Boks introduced to telling effect. By the time Tommy O’Donnell became Ireland’s second replacement for the Trojan O’Mahony, the Boks had emptied all bar one of their bench.
Ultimately though, Ireland then had to out-smart rather than out-muscle the Boks.
Even with that flimsy interval lead, the product of a good first quarter and a punishing defensive examination in the second, there wasn’t much optimism in the air.
Yet it is uncanny how often Schmidt, Les Kiss and the Brains Trust influence games at half-time.
Throughout there was a real clash of worldly, quality wingers in Tommy Bowe and Bryan Habana, and to his immense credit, Bowe probably emerged from the duel in credit with an error-free, all-round game full of significant plays.
One hugely significant example came within a minute of the resumption when Bowe saw le Roux shape to kick over him and backpedalled to gather, weighed up his options, kicked and chased, rose to claim the ball above Habana in the air, and after Devin Toner claimed the ball on the ground.
It was striking how quickly the Irish pod of four and backline regrouped from the recycle, and how crisp long passes by Conor Murray and Sexton, opened up the space for Henshaw’s kick from which the Ruddock try came. From Toner’s take, the ball was quickly transferred to Ruddock, and the Boks left a soft spot for Paul O’Connell to drive the flanker over. Even Ruddock looked surprised at the ease of his first Test try on just his second Test start.
One always felt Ireland had a chance, not only because they still retained almost two thirds of the Six Nations winning team, with the same secondrow, but most of all because they had Murray and Sexton.
This was the first home Test out of the last 80, dating back to 1999, not featuring either Brian O’Driscoll or Gordon D’Arcy. Teams evolve, and what Ireland may have lost in the retirement of O’Driscoll, they have gained in the emergence of a half-back partnership that can become the best in the world and the best in the history of Irish rugby. And they’re close to it already.
They out-thought, out- played and out-kicked the error-prone Francois Hougaard and Handré Pollard. Murray hardly put a kick or a foot wrong, and after a few early sighters, Sexton found his range beautifully to become the game’s most influential figure.
Whatever about his strained hamstring, Ireland have reaped some benefit from his time at Racing Metro, and perhaps with the influence of Ronan O’Gara, Sexton is spiralling the ball beautifully, and never more so than with the 68th-minute, 50-metre touchfinder over Habana’s head. This led to the Duane Vermeulen throw-in (Adriaan Strauss was in the bin) from which the immense Peter O’Mahony wrestled the ball from the Boks’ number eight – which is no mean achievement.
This in turn led to the 71st penalty from which Sexton pushed Ireland two scores clear – at almost the same place and moment as when failing to put Ireland two scores clear against the All Blacks a year ago. But Sexton was error free, landing six from six for a 16 point haul, and so while there would also be the concession of a late try, the difference being that this time Ireland had pulled clear into a 29-10 lead.
Sexton was the catalyst again when stepping inside Pat Lambie for one of Ireland’s four clean line breaks, and from the recycle, in another move which looked pre-planned by the Brains Trust, Murray pitched his chip to the pin for Bowe, holding his width as Habana was drawn in, to gather and score a deserved and decisive try.
Sexton converted and Ian Madigan even strutted on to land a sweet penalty
For sure, South African errors helped enormously – betraying a lack of matches in the previous four weeks possibly, and perhaps also a degree of over confidence - as well as a lack of discipline.
Old habits never die, some of them still can’t resist a cheap shot, and as with a couple of first-half penalties against Bismarck du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss’ silly swing of the arm at an airborne Rob Kearney correctly led to a penalty and yellow card against the visitors’ sub hooker.
Romain Poite made sensible use of the TMO then and elsewhere. During that time Sexton, O’Connell, O’Mahony and co went for the kill, and Ireland scored 10 unanswered points. Scoring sequence: 9 mins Sexton pen 3-0; 24 mins Sexton pen 6-3; 38 mins Pollard pen 6-3; (half-time 6-3); 42 mins Ruddock try, Sexton con 13-3; 57 mins Coetzee try, Pollard con 13-10; 63 mins Sexton pen 16-10; 71 mins Sexton pen 19-10; 72 mins Bowe try, Sexton con 26-10; 79 mins Madigan pen 29-10; 80 mins JP Pietersen 29-15. IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Jonathan Sexton), Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Seán Cronin, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell (capt), Peter O’Mahony, Rhys Ruddock, Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Richardt Strauss for Cronin (58 mins), Tommy O’Donnell for O’Mahony (71 mins), Dave Kilcoyne for McGrath, Rodney Ah You for Ross, Mike McCarthy for Toner, Ian Madigan for Sexton, Felix Jones for Kearney (all 74 mins), Eoin Reddan for Payne (78 mins). SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux; Cornal Hendricks, Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers(capt), Bryan Habana; Handré Pollard, Francois Hougaard; Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Victor Matfield, Marcell Coetzee, Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje, Duane Vermeulen. Replacements: Schalk Burger for Mohoje (47 mins), JP Pietersen for Hendricks (50 mins), Adriaan Strauss for B du Plessis (51 mins), Cobus Reinach for (57 mins), Bakkies Botha for Etzebeth (65 mins), Pat Lambie for Pollard (67 mins), Trevor Nyakane for Mtawarira (68 mins), Coenie Oosthuizen for J du Plessis (72 mins). Sinbinned: A Strauss (67-77 mins). Referee: Romain Poite (France).