Ireland edge out Springboks in gladiatorial battle

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On the eve of Ireland’s box office match with South Africa, Andy Farrell’s Ireland A were subject to a 47-19 throttling at the hands of an All Black XV.

It is worth noting that many of the players for Ireland A do not start for their provincial side, and the average age of the starting fifteen was 24 years of age. In contrast, many of the All Blacks XV consistently play in Super Rugby and have multiple New Zealand caps to their names.

Yet the manner in which Ireland A were defeated, by a ferocious blitz defence and a rip-roaring running game, may have left Andy Farrell pondering questions in the RDS such as “Have we been found out?” or “Do teams now have a template to defeat us?” All was to be answered at Lansdowne Road.

It was clear that this was going to be an intensely physical affair as, after only 10 minutes of the match, Jesse Kriel, Damien Willemse and Siya Kolisi had already smashed a host of Ireland players in some bone-crunching tackles that would make Brian Lima wince. If Ireland were to prevail, they would have to box smart, which was precisely what they did. 

After sustained pressure from the ‘Boks, it was evident that Ireland’s defensive plan was to chop the gargantuan South African forwards down at the ankles and allow for a second player to come in and attempt a jackal. Within the first fifteen minutes, the boys in navy and cyan had attempted fourteen jackals. And, when the ball went wide, they deployed a soft drift defence, ensuring that all outside shoulders were earmarked and dangerous South African players such as Kurt-Lee Arendse and Kolbe were pushed to the touchline. The touchline never misses a tackle.

Then Cheslin Kolbe and Pieter-Steph du Toit found themselves in trouble. After the ball had been flung out wide to Mack Hansen, Kolbe and Du Toit lifted the Connacht winger off the ground, put him past the horizontal, and planted him into the turf, head and neck first, albeit with little force but dangerous play regardless. The decision from Nika Amashukeli was a yellow card for the Toulon flyer, but in light of recent conversations in the rugby world, this likely should have been red, as player welfare continues to court controversy.

Ireland could not register a score while Kolbe was in the sin bin, and suffered some key injuries throughout the final fifteen minutes of the half. Conor Murray was cruelly taken off and replaced by Jamison Gibson Park after only 30 odd minutes on his 100th cap for Ireland. Stuart McCloskey went off with a shoulder injury for Jimmy O’Brien, meaning Garry Ringrose would switch to inside centre with O’Brien on his outside. A first cap for the Eadestown native. A baptism of fire if ever there was one.

Both sides went into the sheds at half-time with 6 points to their names and a whole lot more rugby to be played.

Ireland came out in the second half swinging. Sexton sent another penalty, eminently kickable, to the corner, and this time the Irish pack were out for blood. Josh Van der Flier received the ball at the back of the maul, and despite a vicious counter maul coming in from the Springboks, the Leinster flanker showed tremendous spatial awareness to get the ball down over the whitewash with his boots only centimetres from the touchline. Vindication for Sexton and Van der Flier for two enormous and gutsy decisions.

It would only get better for Ireland stemming from a bit of wizardry courtesy of Caelan Doris. With the ball appearing to be out of play, Doris dove towards it, scooping it backwards towards his teammates in order to keep the ball alive, and forced Ireland to shift the ball through the hands from one wing to the other.

The Irish players did immensely well to find Jimmy O'Brien as Ireland looked to switch it wide left, and O'Brien then quickly fed Mack Hansen, who had the simple task of running in a spectacular team try. Sexton again missed with the extras, leaving the score at 16-6.

After 69 minutes, the South Africans got a score of their own. 

Their chances of scoring a try looked to have been stopped with last-ditch tackles flying in from Hansen and Robert Baloucoune, but Ireland could not stave them off, and back rower Franco Mostert broke through and grounded the ball.

On a day to forget for kickers, the conversion was missed, and that meant there were still five points between the sides with 10 minutes to go. Ireland were given the opportunity to go eight points clear in the 75th minute as the Georgian referee awarded them another penalty.

Sexton, channeling his hero Tom Brady, clutched up and produced when it mattered, and his kick bifurcated the posts to make it a two score game.

Of the two scores they needed, South Africa only found one; Kurt-Lee Arendse went over for another try in the corner after an exceptional offload by Eben Etzebeth before the extras were put wide to leave three points between the sides.

The clock struck 80 and Joey Carbery was on hand to boot the ball out of play, to a rapturous Lansdowne Road. Yet the dance was not over, not in the eyes of Rassie Erasmus. 

As in any game, the referee made mistakes, and they just happened to fall in favour of Ireland. Dan Sheehan booted the ball out of a ruck and was not penalised, yet Eben Etzebeth was called for the same infringement.

Another instance of a mistake occurring, yet more egregiously, was a clear forward pass in the build-up to Mack Hansen’s try. How this was not picked up by the TMO is a head scratcher.

A leopard never changes his spots, and Rassie being Rassie took to Twitter to air out his grievances. Now, trash talking is a very alien thing to rugby and ultimately, it’s harmless as the tweet doesn’t target anyone directly.

 But maybe instead of bemoaning a couple of mistakes, he should have tweeted about why he didn’t field a competent game manager at fly-half for an all-out slug fest. Or why he placed a top class winger at fullback (Kolbe has played there before but not at test level). Food for thought.

These types of wins are benchmarks in rugby. Ireland were phenomenal, they were tactically superior to the Springboks, who looked lost in the backs without fulcrum Lukhanyo Am. Ireland have walked the walk, but can they repeat this herculean feat next Autumn in Paris?