Liam Toland: Aki and Ireland hammer the hammers
Exciting times ahead if Ireland can build on this record-breaking performance
South Africa’s centre Damian de Allende is tackled by Robbie Henshaw. Photograph: Getty Images
Bundee Aki takes a picture with his daughter Adrianna Aki and family members. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Bundee Aki tackles Francois Louw of South Africa. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
I’d many reasons to go to the Aviva on Saturday, but chief among them was the opportunity to watch the Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx and the wonderful number six Siya Kolisi.
Marx had singlehandedly transformed a 57-0 humiliation against the All Blacks to a 24-25 one-point loss within 21 days. Kolisi is well worth a little homework because his life story is inspirational.
So I watched and I watched these two players, growing increasingly despondent until my gaze panned back and focused on Bundee Aki. I believe his arrival is a game-changer for Ireland and how we approach the game.
For instance, his tackle technique creates so many possibilities. The Springboks took their first line-out off the top in a pre-rehearsed move, as they clearly wanted their fatties to truck it up in midfield.
It was an ideal situation for the Springboks to impose themselves on the game after just 52 seconds and bully the Irish defence. Enter the 6’2”, 129kgs tighthead Coenie Oosthuizen as the man to bludgeon any Irish thoughts of dominance.
He was initially met by Johnny Sexton before Aki smashed. Tackling comes in many forms, with tempo and technique being set by the ball carrier. I don’t know what Oosthuizen was expecting but when Aki engaged, the Irish centre did so on his terms. Coming forward he planted his feet as he accelerated into the Springbok.
Clearly Aki (37kg lighter) has a phenomenal core and he wrapped his left arm around the Springbok tighthead and powered him backwards into a terrible position. Off the 129kg prop went, less than a minute on the clock. From the resulting scrum Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira couldn’t cope with Tadhg Furlong and conceded a penalty. 3-0 Ireland; Oosthuizen off injured and Mtawarira in trouble after three minutes.
But deeper problems lay ahead for South Africa and that same off the top play revealed all. As outhalf Elton Jantjies received he immediately swivelled (telegraphing) towards his fatties. I still don’t know what South Africa were expecting but as Oosthuizen received from a standing start both Mtawarira and Kolisi were inside him offering nothing.
This is antithesis to a Joe Schmidt side who all have roles, decoys, lines, offering to carry, selling the defence, etc.
The two powerful carriers Mtawarira and Kolisi did nothing to trouble the Irish defence, facilitating an early read on Oosthuizen and a double smash from Sexton and Aki.
Aki went on to display the full range of his tackling technique, such as when outside centre Jesse Kriel put on the gas. Aki tracked him off a split midfield scrum and patiently traded space for time with Andrew Conway outside focused on Courtnall Skosan. As Kriel was most vulnerable, Aki simply engaged and dragged him into touch.
He has that perfect physique to engage the tackle in a myriad of ways and is never happy simply to put the man down as his post-tackle activity is relentless. This attitude, allied to technique, dragged South Africa into terrible places where their skill-set and execution was truly appalling, not least for a team in camp for the past number of months.
The modern game comes with it a plethora of statistics and my current obsession is turnovers, but I can’t find a stat for inaccurate Springbok passing behind the receiver’s shoulder. Take the one sloppy turnover by Ireland on 33:07 and follow South Africa’s reaction. Yes it’s an active turnover transition, but with a four-on-two and the Ireland try line at their mercy they butchered it long before the terrible pass from Kolisi into touch.
Contrast that to Ireland’s amazing transition from yet another sloppy Springbok turnover on 79:34. This time it was from an attacking Springbok scrum that broke down on the second pass. Yes, a top-five team and they can’t make two successful passes. They should be fined.
A turnover gained deep inside your 22 is worth gold, but the team need to sense the opportunity – it needs to be part of the team’s culture. So when Jacob Stockdale gathered inside his 22 his immediate instinct was to attack and dominate the hapless Springbok fullback Andries Coetzee. The subsequent clear-outs, precision placements, shot selection and handling were wonderful, but it’s worth remembering that earlier Kolisi pass into touch.
Ireland were in the exact same spot with the exact same intent but South African defenders were all at sea as Andrew Conway landed the perfect pass for Stockdale to finish what he started. Perfection.
A further difference between the sides can be seen in Rhys Ruddock’s try. Ireland’s off the top line-out play was markedly different in execution than South Africa’s attempt 70 minutes earlier. South African defenders were fixed, transfixed and left floundering at every turn by Irish players running hard lines, passing accurately on the gainline and clearing out the ball carrier when partially exposed.
And on this very point of how the team performs Devin Toner, Furlong and especially Rob Kearney were exemplary in their selflessness at clearing out to ensure Marx et al got almost no opportunity to jackal in for the ball.
Yes, I went to the Aviva to witness Marx and Kolisi. The former was ineffective while the later was worse. I had noted on Friday how controlling the pace was the key to an Irish performance and win. Ireland did that but they did so much more. When Aki et al really find their feet who knows where it will end.
Of course all this may be moot as it was so difficult to tell which side was in green!