Playing Them At Their Own Game
One team can’t beat another by 35 points without dominating them in every department, and such was the case with Ireland’s record win over South Africa on Saturday evening. As with any big win in rugby, it all started up front, with Ireland putting it up to South Africa in the physical exchanges, and the former southern hemisphere powerhouse had no answer. South Africa’s pack were unrecognisable from the abrasive unit that challenged New Zealand five weeks earlier, and all of their big-name forwards failed to turn up.
Eben Etzebeth was a shadow of the champion that bestrode Cape Town, getting outperformed by Iain Henderson, a player who has had his credentials as a Test lock questioned on a regular basis in recent seasons. Malcom Marx was non-existent outside of the set-pieces, and Siya Kolisi didn’t have one gain line-busting charge in the entire game. Apart from a period in the third quarter where they started allowing South Africa to make yards after contact, Ireland were the more physical team both in attack and defence:
The aggressive nature of Ireland’s defence forced Ross Cronjé into several box-kicks because of his teams’ inability to generate go-forward ball, and the pressure that Devin Toner exerted making some of them to go askew exacerbated South Africa’s problems.
Aside from winning collisions around the park, Ireland also won the battle of the breakdown by a country mile. Upon first viewing, their back row seemed to be quiet in the first half, but closer inspection revealed that they were actually spending that part of the game carrying hard and straight into the Springbok defence in-close to pave the way for the try-scoring surge that came in the closing stages. Before that, though, they, along with the rest of their pack, won turnovers at the breakdown with ease any time their team were under the pump:
Marx was a pest on the floor in the Rugby Championship, and Francois Louw is normally unmatched in this area, but the South African pack were toothless when it came to poaching. Across the board, the only South African forward who came close to matching his opposite number was Tendai Mtawarira, and besides the scrum superiority going back and forward, Ireland were superior to their opposition in all aspects of forward play. In a way, it was depressing to see a once-great team having a number done on them in what has traditionally been their forte.
Chess, Not Checkers
During the game, Donal Lenihan spoke in commentary about the leadership and authority coming from Ireland’s ‘intellectual core’ (numbers 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10); it was a unique turn of phrase, but one which summed up Ireland’s intelligence on the day perfectly. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton ruthlessly exploited the South African back three’s inept covering of the backfield, and it was an important factor in stopping the Springboks from getting a foothold in the Irish half:
As mentioned earlier, Cronjé’s box-kicks were nothing to write home about, but the kicking out of hand from Elton Jantjies and Andries Coetzee wasn’t any better. Rob Kearney had plenty of time and space to work with when running the ball back from deep, and while he never cut loose in the same manner that he did in Chicago last year, he made good ground off every counterattack:
Allister Coetzee has to seriously consider whether or not he should persist with Jantjies at 10; out-halves who can’t give direction aren’t much use, and although Handré Pollard struggled when he first came on (in his defence, he was brought into the game under trying circumstances), his leadership qualities are probably better-suited to being a starter than an impact substitute.
Ireland’s video analysts would definitely have recognised the Springboks’ back three’s incompetence under the high ball, but the dominance Ireland enjoyed in the air was beyond anything their coaching ticket could have hoped for:
Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway were relentless in their kick-chasing, and Courtnall Skosan and Dillyn Leyds won’t be looking forward to seeing them again anytime soon. With Stockdale’s physicality and defensive reading being key to shutting down South Africa’s wide movements, and Conway making big gains whenever he found space in the tramlines, Ireland may just have found a ‘big and little’ balance on the wings that could see them through to RWC 2019.
Joe Schmidt’s greatest strength is his ability to analyse weaknesses in the opposition defence and devise attacking shapes to expose them. With South Africa having two poor defensive decision-makers at 10 and 12, Ireland’s wide movements were characterised by multiple decoy runners in midfield, with the wraparound used to get the ball wide once the Springbok defence had narrowed up:
Despite the quantity and quality of Ireland’s decoy runners both being high in the above example, Elton Jantjies and Damien de Allende bite down far too quickly, and the space Ireland are given is an aberration at Test level. This line break didn’t lead to a try, but it showed how clever Ireland were in their use of the ball when they went wide.
Any time that a team you support beats a top-ranked side by 35 points, you are left with no option other than to quibble. It’s an unlikeable, nitpicky thing to do, but it must be noted that Ireland beat South Africa without getting out of second gear. Yes, their bench came on and scored a couple of tries against a defence that had been softened up for 70 minutes, yet Ireland’s winning margin could have been bigger if they had been more accurate in certain moments. As mentioned above, their attacking structure and decoy runners pulled the South African defence out of shape, but their handling out wide let them down in the early stages of the game:
There won’t be many complaints about Sexton being awarded man of the match, and notwithstanding the fact that he outplayed his opposite number and steered his team around the park expertly, he won’t be pleased with himself over the above mistake, and neither will Schmidt. It was one of a few occasions where Ireland failed to take full advantage of space they had created in the five-metre channel and it cost them the chance to cut the Springbok defence open.
The handling errors can be corrected, but wholesale changes are in store for this Saturday’s Test against Fiji, meaning that when Schmidt’s team play Argentina next weekend, there will be an element of starting from scratch. They can’t afford to waste the same number of opportunities, because as England found out on Saturday, the Pumas’ fitness isn’t a shortcoming if you don’t up the pace and intensity of the game for sustained periods.
The high error count from Eddie Jones’ side kept Argentina interested when they were expected to fall away after 60 minutes, as they have done throughout the Rugby Championship. Ireland’s performance against South Africa was a level or two above what England produced earlier in the day, but against a side who have a lot more weapons in their armoury, Ireland will have to be sharper in everything that they do.