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WHEN THE IRISH CAME TO TOWN

An Irish fifteen, weakened first by the unavailability of some of their better players and then weakened further through their own lack of discipline on the field, deservedly beat a Springbok side lacking in basic skills, guilty of indiscipline and bereft of ideas and tactics. The home team were simply unable to turn the tide of a ruthless onslaught by fourteen courageous Irishmen. It seemed the Newlands crowd held their breath throughout the match.

From a South African perspective, one has to question the coaching, the leadership on and off the field, the mental preparation – if there was sufficient – and the inability to adapt to circumstance on the field of play. The kernel of an answer lies partly in examining why the home team with nearly sixty percent possession, failed to cross the gain line with speed, strength and sufficient support. Despite solid Irish tackling, there were other options of attack not taken. 

I, for one, do not accept that the team had not had ‘enough time’ together. Apart from the players new to international rugby – and all of them are seasoned players in the Super Eighteen competition – this was a Springbok side with established experience at this level. Yet, from the kick-off there was a sort of exaggerated rush to show willing and blast the Irish off the ball. So over-hyped was the approach in the first twenty minutes, that it suggested the ‘headless chicken’ narrative – running madly without a clear goal in mind.

Is that harsh? I don’t think so. The Irish seemed more settled and better prepared from the start. But it did come as a surprise when they scored a clever try in the tenth minute. This was exquisitely done, had obviously been rehearsed many times and was executed successfully. Marshall, at centre, aware that impenetrable try-line discipline is now a ‘given’, that few tackles are missed or soft tries available, grubbered the ball through from five metres out. Direction, accuracy and weight of kick were superb and Payne grabbed the bouncing ball to score: Ireland 7 South Africa 0.

Then came a huge turning point. In the twenty-third minute, the Springbok flyhalf, Patrick Lambie, chipped into open space behind the rushing defenders. Much too late, C.J. Stander leapt in the air, with no effort made to reach the ball. His right hip hit Lambie so hard on the head that it snapped back and he was knocked out. He left the field not to return. Stander received a red card and, I hope receives a severe sentence. (His action made me think momentarily of American football where in recent seasons, players were paid ‘bounty money’ up to 20,000 US dollars to put an opponent off the field. Stander was violently reckless but had no malign intent it seems, though that’s no consolation for Lambie).

Then in the thirty-first minute, the replacement at flyhalf, Elton Jantjies, passed inside to Mvovo and was tackled late and high, again with the head as target. (Henshaw was lucky to receive only a yellow card.) In a prepared and well-constructed move before the ‘tackle’ on Jantjies, Mvovo came off his left wing to take a reverse pass from the flyhalf and went over with speed, near the poles. Great try it was. 

Luckily, Jantjies recovered and played well throughout, happy to be reunited with his team-mate from The Lions, the irrepressible and all-action Faf de Klerk. I thought, ‘Well, we are ahead now 13 to 10. They have only fourteen men. Pressure will be applied and we’ll steamroller them, spread the ball wide, create the extra man and score.’

But somehow, the means to do so eluded the Springboks. The forwards won the ball and the backs squandered it. There was no one straightening the line. Le Roux ran laterally and executed three easily detectable reverse flip passes to Mvovo. The Irish snuffed him out each time. De Allende had a few moments of bewildering side-stepping but he, too, could not break the Irish line and send his wing away. 

There were moments of flair and drive from the likes of Kolisi, Vermeulen and Louw but overall the South Africans lacked cohesion, support was erratic and time and time again, the Irish marauded into Springbok territory. So with a dropped goal by Paddy Jackson, the teams went to the break at 13-all.

I am always fascinated by what is said to players during half-time. It must depend to a large extent on the state of play. I don’t think coach Coetzee and his advisers imagined defeat was a possibility. Did he, did his backline coaches, talk about ‘straight running’, of the necessity for ball control, of starving the Irish of the ball, of playing in the Irish half? Did they suggest to Jantjies that, if shuffling the ball along the backline achieved nothing, grubbers and chips and feeding inside to flanks and blindside wings had to be a priority? 

It did not look like it. As the Springboks returned to the field, I smelled overconfidence. I did not sense complacency, but its half-brother, smug expectation. The scores were level, the Irish had but fourteen players. We are the Springboks. Where’s the problem?

Well the problem came when it often does in close contests, in that vital first ten minutes of the second half. The Irish came on like a stampede. Against opponents who wanted to do well but appeared casual and unfocused. Connor Murray, a mere two minutes into the half, scored a fine try from five metres out. Where was our vaunted defence? The score now stood at 20 to 13. “Oh well,” one could sense the home captain thinking, ‘There’s plenty of time. Let’s get the ball and keep it.” 

And, at times, they did, but with little sense of urgency. It looked as though the backs thought the gaps would just open up, like the Red Sea for Moses in another unequal challenge from long ago. (As we well know, Moses won ‘going away’ against great odds. Saw the gap and took it at speed.) Further South, in Cape Town, the game veered this way and that. The Irish brought in their blindside wing to pack down. We could find ‘dominance’ in no significant area of play, even though we won good ball at scrums and lineouts. In the loose, matters were different. The Irish were unstoppable in their voracity for turnover ball. It was a privilege to watch.

Du Toit intercepted from a loose Irish pass and scored under the poles. We were back in the game, 20 points to 23, only a penalty or drop behind. But victory required a converted try after Jackson put the Irish 6 points ahead with another penalty in the seventy- sixth minute. I was heartened to see and sense an urgency in the Springbok side which had been largely absent for so much of the game. There was much more determined running, straight and strong. Support was at hand.  

But there were only four minutes left of playing time. After some attacking running and passing, J.P. Pietersen found himself four metres from the corner flag with ball in hand. The match was on a knife edge. A converted try would win the match for the Springboks. He did not score. Why?

Pietersen did not score because for reasons which I am sure he cannot explain, instead of diving his full length with arms and ball stretched for the tryline, he looked at the cover defence and, upright, ran at them; disastrous error. There was no feint inside and then the dive to slide over. Four Irish defenders leapt on him like lionesses on a wildebeest, he was bundled into touch and the Irish had won an historic victory, their first on South African soil. Well done to them for courage, skill and relentless focus in the face of a talented team who failed to fire on the day. There is work to be done before the next test at Ellis Park.

At Eden Park, Auckland, the All Blacks won well against a Wales team which, with only 12 minutes to go were but 4 points behind. But with their customary shift of gears in the last quarter, the home team applied massive pressure and scored an impressive 39 to 21 victory. One of their last tries involved three front row forwards interpassing before Harris went over. The New Zealanders are coached not only corporately but also as individuals. It’s called ‘Attention To Detail’.

What became apparent during the day of international rugby is that the game is no longer a ‘fifteen man’ sport but one of ‘twenty-three’. The way in which the bench is employed has become a crucial factor in planning and timing. The All Black coaching team and the England squad, too, got it just right.

England beat Australia in a match fiercely contested and played in an aggressive spirit. Each side scored three good tries. The end result favoured England because Farrell was deadly with his goal-kicking and Foley was hapless in this department. He gave away nine or ten points in kickable opportunities. England 39 – Australia 21.

Neil Jardine

 

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