Joe Schmidt might not appreciate frenzy of expectation but his brilliance could create one
Late South Africa try probably no bad thing in terms of keeping sense of perspective
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt speaks to his players before the game against South Africa. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
It’s possibly just as well that the Irish defensive system had its late malfunction to allow JP Pietersen in for South Africa’s consolation try. This ensures Les Kiss and Joe Schmidt have another critical dimension to get their teeth into when they review the game and Paul O’Connell and co can stay angry with themselves. It also ensured Ireland did not rise to the giddy heights of third in the world rankings for the first time since November 2006 and contract vertigo.
No performance is perfect, of course, and there would have been plenty for the Joe Schmidt brains trust to find fault with anyway, not least the loss of four lineouts and two scrums, a mite too many penalties for not releasing when the first or second man arriving at the clear-out might have done his job more effectively, and 26 missed tackles.
However, if Ireland had reached third in the world, expectations would have gone off the Richter scale and we all know what happened the last time Ireland went to the World Cup in supposedly favourable Northern Hemisphere conditions. Yes, remember France in 2007. Coming on the back of the Six Nations triumph, Schmidt would have hated the heightened belief that this Irish squad might be able to boldly go where no Irish side has gone before, namely the semi-finals and potentially beyond.
Once again a 23-man Irish squad has bought into a gameplan with complete and utter trust. Moves were practiced on the training ground specifically with the Springboks in mind as part of the type of forensic preparation that is typical of Schmidt’s Ireland. And once again, the team has been rewarded handsomely.
It is a sign of an exceptional coach that his teams do not predominantly play the same way. The Auckland Blues and Clermont – where he was ostensibly a backs coach and had free rein to work off the Vern Cotter-drilled pack that usually delivered ball on a silver salver – were known for the wonderful expansiveness of their back play.
Leinster also played with a broad brush, and were noted for their offloading.
However, last year’s Six Nations’ success was founded on a fairly low-risk form of rugby that revolved around recycling. It wasn’t unlike a brand of schools rugby, dutifully applied almost to the letter by all the players.
Schmidt’s teams are tailored to the talents at his disposal and perhaps also to the comparative lack of time he has with an international side compared to a club/provincial outfit. Yet they still possess a tactical flexibility to suit the demands of the opposition and the occasion.
So it was that Ireland sought to counter the South Africa blitz defence with a kicking game designed to turn the Boks and utilise the space they tend to leave behind their wingers – space Australian and New Zealand sides are less inclined to exploit, in part because of the commercial and marketing demands placed on sides in the Southern Hemisphere, according to Matt Williams.
When not going long for territory, the Irish kickers hoisted the ball for the chasers, and with the Gaelic footballing roots of the outstanding Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe – both at their vintage best – and a three-quarter line comprising four players who have all played full-back in addition to Kearney, Ireland kept the South African back three under constant pressure.
Despite having less possession, the Ireland halves kicked out of hand 27 times, whereas the South African half-backs kicked out of hand on 18 occasions.
The contrasting statistics of the respective half-backs are revealing. Conor Murray kicked seven times, passed 56 times and ran three times, and Johnny Sexton kicked 11 times, passed 14 times and ran twice. By contrast, Francois Hougaard and Handre Pollard were 2/62/4 and 5/16/8.
It was also clearly part of the gameplan that Ireland did not attack too wide with the ball in hand, possibly for fear of players being isolated and turning over possession to Bryan Habana and co.
In any event, the ball hardly ever moved beyond the newly formed Irish midfield duo of Robbie Henshaw, who gave the clearest indication yet that he has the potential to be a truly exceptional player, and Jared Payne. Henshaw had one kick, passed twice and ran six times. Payne was credited with zero passes and zero kicks from his six possessions, all of which were carries.
Ultimately, one imagines the same tactics won’t work when the last two Leinster head coaches go head to head next Saturday week. Michael Cheika’s Wallabies have long since learned how to box clever against the physically mightier Springboks, and will be much more unpredictable.
Over once again, therefore, to he who walks on water. firstname.lastname@example.org