Ireland kicked off their November series with an impressive (albeit tight) win over a South African team that were out for blood. The Springboks have come under intense scrutiny lately, but that’s what happens when you’re the reigning world champions; everyone else wants to knock you off your perch.
The fact that Ireland managed to do just that without the services of Rónan Kelleher, Ian Henderson and Robbie Henshaw, as well as Jamison Gibson-Park and Hugo Keenan having zero match fitness makes Ireland’s victory all the more remarkable. They also had to contend with losing Conor Murray and Stuart McCloskey before half-time, but they still had the strength of character to tough it out and scrap for a win.
A Strained Start
Ireland found it very difficult to get a foothold in South African territory in the first half, largely due to the Springboks’ outstanding work off the ball. They were intelligent and hyper-aggressive in their competition on the deck, and no Irish breakdown was safe from jackalling or counter-rucking:
South Africa’s defence made it difficult for Ireland to get the ball to their wingers into the clear, with the speed of the blitzing from Jesse Kriel and Makazole Mapimpi causing the hosts no end of consternation with their wide movements:
Ireland held their nerve and refused to crumble in the face of this pressure, though, and the area of their game that demonstrated this the most was their maul defence.
After conceding a cheap early penalty in this department, Ireland sharpened up their counter-shove immeasurably, and the South African pack got next to no change out of them from touch thereafter:
Paul O’Connell has received a lot of the plaudits for Ireland’s work in the above examples, and rightly so, but as the saying goes, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the nose. The former Munster and Ireland captain is renowned for the level of analysis he does on opposition packs, but ultimately, the players have to go out and execute the plan, and it speaks volumes about the Irish forwards’ conditioning and temperament, they the rarely looked overpowered in this fixture.
Much has been made of the fortuitous nature of Mack Hansen’s try in the media, and while scoring a try on transition requires an element of luck, Ireland had laid the groundwork at certain points in the first half. As mentioned earlier, they did struggle to find and exploit space at the edges in the first half, but also had the presence of mind when not to force wide passes that were too risky, on top of knowing when to kick to space when phase play wasn’t bearing any fruit:
First-rate decision-making from Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose was crucial in the clips above, and they weren’t the only times that Ireland put boot to ball.
The decision to pick Cheslin Kolbe at full-back didn’t work out as well as Rassie Erasmus would have hoped; the quality of Ireland’s kick-chase denied him any counter-attacking opportunities, and Ireland’s half-backs were ruthless in how they targeted him with garryowens:
Ireland were heavily criticised during the Joe Schmidt era for their aerial bombardment tactics, but when you’re getting big returns from it repeatedly, why would you stop doing it?
Kolbe’s positioning and running angles on to the high ball were off for the time that he was on the pitch, and given how effective Ireland’s back three are in the air, they were bound to test him out. Kolbe is a phenomenonal athlete and a deadly finisher, and while playing him at 15 was an experiment that didn’t work out, he is guaranteed to bounce back and cause Ireland problems at the World Cup next year.
Bumps & Bruises
Ireland will no doubt have the physical effects of Saturday night’s encounter, and they already have a few injury concerns on the back of it, but they can take comfort from coming away from the Aviva Stadium with the spoils. The winning margin could have been bigger, but Ireland have gotten their November campaign off to a flying start, and now have the Fiji game to rest tired bodies and test out younger players.
They’ll need every minute of it, too, as Australia will be seething with how things panned out in the Stade de France on Saturday, and that was straight after a disappointing, narrow win over a Scotland team that imploded in the second half. Fiji will be more competitive than what they produced against Scotland at the weekend, too, so the rest of this month won’t exactly be plain sailing for Ireland, but they’re currently in the best place they could possibly be.