So our rugby Novembers are back to normal this year. At this time twelve months ago, we Irish fans were taking stock after the first round of Heineken Cup matches and happy to forget about test rugby for a while given how the World Cup panned out.
Now the normal order has been restored. After a couple of months supporting our respective provinces, we turn our attention to the national side, most of us doing our best to hide our bias, and most of us failing miserably at it.
It's actually quite interesting looking at analysis of the Irish team these days. Either someone goes full throttle refusing to remove their provincial goggles, or they go overboard in the other direction, making sure every time they mention something positive about one of “their own” players, they also throw a nod to other province's players for good measure.
So as I sit down ready to focus my criticism from this match on the Irish coaching staff, you'll probably think it's because the head coach is from Munster. Which is why I have to go to all this trouble to point out that for all Ireland's troubles between the Grand Slam and the World Cup, I defended Declan Kidney on the basis that he should be judged more on our performance against the Wallabies in Auckland than anything that went before that.
In some ways I was justified because we got the result that day, but where I fully admit I went wrong was that I assumed that having gotten that victory, we'd be able to carry the performances through and as we all know that just did not happen when we faced the Welsh in Wellington. And ever since then, the inconsistency has continued.
The preparations for this November series were of course hampered by injuries to a rake of key players no test side wants to be without. But in the build-up to this encounter I repeatedly pointed out that whatever about the selections of the players on the park, it was the decision to draft in Greg Feek and Anthony Foley to the coaching ticket that was up for scrutiny, not just in their own specific areas, but all around the park.
Well for the first half an hour, things certainly weren't so bad. Now it has to be said, the Springboks were all kinds of awful from the opening kickoff. To a man they seemed half a step behind everywhere except the lineout. You get the feeling that if a certain other team wearing all black were facing them as they played like that, the margin would grow much wider.
But despite our lack of proven match-winners, we were still able to establish a 12-3 lead. For the most part we were able to play ourselves into good positions, more often than not by using our back three, particularly Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo. And with the Springboks on the back foot, they were bound to concede penalties rather than cough up tries, so the scoreboard was ticking over nicely for us.
So, after 30 minutes, we had a nice advantage. But with so much of the match left, we had to assume that our opposition would eventually try something to get back into it. And sure enough it happened from the restart after Sexton had kicked his fourth (and ultimately final) penalty.
In ice hockey, there's an important role known as “enforcer”. Basically it's a player who you send on to start a row to help get into the heads of the opposition when things are going south.
Now I'm not necessarily saying JP Pietersen threw himself into Chris Henry on purpose to earn his yellow card, but given his experience, it did seem odd that he would crash into an opponent without so much as either checking where the ball was or using his arms in the tackle.
But let's be clear...I'm not calling our opposition cheats either. I'm saying these are things you do at the top level of test rugby, and I'm more interested in how we responded.
Pietersen was rightly carded. Could it have been red? Perhaps. But the resulting situation was that we had a 9-point lead against the two-time world champions and an extra man with just under ten minutes left in the first half. The sun was shining (metaphorically anyway) so hay was there to be made. What would we do next?
Well first of all, we allowed a scrap to take place immediately after Henry was fouled. No better way for an overall gameplan to be knocked out of a man's head than for him to be drawn into a petty scuffle with an opponent. Calmer heads eventually prevailed, but it seemed the damage had been done. I was just eager to see us get the ball back and do precisely what we had been doing up to that point and get more scores on the board.
The lineout after the ensuing penalty was scrappy, and this wasn't surprising as this was one area where the Boks were strong with the likes of Etzebeth on the park. But eventually we got ourselves an attacking lineout more than 10m inside their half, and this one we took cleanly, setting up a phase, and what's the first thing we do? High ball from Conor Murray, which was both taken and marked.
A few minutes later, we get possession again, further back this time but still an attacking position around halfway, and what do we do? Sexton punts another garryowen, and again it was taken.
So here's my question. Why did we change things? Why were Bowe & Zebo taken out of our equation when they had already been shown to work? Our offensive strategy wasn't perfect, but given our 12 points on the scoreboard it certainly wasn't broken...why suddenly launch the high balls in attacking positions?
The actual responsibility for this could come from the individuals involved, or so I was saying at half-time. But in our first attacking possession in the second half, when we still had the extra man, what did we do? Yet another bomb-launch. Now you could say that Bowe nearly caught it, but the fact remains he didn't and having tried something twice and failed, we did it again, and failed again.
Before you knew it, the Springboks, clearly responding to Heyneke’s halftime hairdryer, were mauling their way towards our line and we went from a man up to a man down, and with both yellows having been awarded in our 22, Heaslip's was a much bigger advantage for them, making the game's only try from Pienaar that followed almost inevitable.
Once we started chasing the game, analysis doesn't really matter as far as I'm concerned. South Africa had been there for the taking and we couldn't take them – that's what I got from this performance.
Now of course we have to look at the individual displays, most notably man-of-the-match Mike McCarthy. He was absolutely fired up for battle and left everything out on the pitch. His hit on Etzebeth at the start of the second half was well worthy of a post on RugbyDump. It was just a shame that his wasn't an area where we could have too much of an effect on the scoreboard, but that certainly wasn't his fault, and he should by right be first name on the teamsheet to face the Pumas whatever happens.
As for Jamie as captain, well it wasn't ideal for him, that's for sure. I felt his one failing going into the match was that despite his perfect record with Leinster, getting in the referee's ear wasn't his strong point, and when Wayne Barnes said to him “When you ask that question after every penalty it loses credibility”, it seemed Heaslip had been trying too hard on that score.
Was his yellow justified? Let me put it this way...it certainly wasn't a situation where Barnes had no choice, and had he a similar choice with a more recognised skipper, I'm pretty confident he would have found a way to keep him on.
But anyone who thinks the captaincy should be taken off of him based on this one performance, really doesn't know what they're talking about. He should definitely retain the “armband” against the Pumas, then we can re-assess things for the Six Nations based on the injury count.
Simon Zebo, as I already said, looked great going forward, but not only did we not use him enough when it mattered, his game would seem much more suited to the wing, where I'd put him instead of Trimble. Other changes I'd make are Earls to full-back and McFadden to centre, but to be honest I'm really getting tired of saying what I would do, especially when I know they probably won’t happen no matter who else may agree.
In our pack, well Richardt Strauss definitely put himself about. We had many problems in our lineouts, but not only do the Boks excel here but after all the prep for Strauss to start we were denied him for the opening few throws which would have thrown us out of whack.
As for the scrums, well you have to hand it to coach Meyer & his staff for drafting in Heinke VDM for a specific job which he performed to perfection. But let's face it...Mike Ross may be a strong tight-head but we certainly cannot expect a full 80 minutes from him in every match. And one way I have to give credit to our own coaches is that in Michael Bent we certainly seem to have someone who can come on and do a job. For all that was said about the rights or wrongs for his being there, he certainly came through and it must have helped that van der Merwe had never faced him.
But that's about all that I can say for Declan Kidney and his fellow coaches I'm afraid. All along he has said that his selections have been driven by ranking points. Yet still we find ourselves on the brink of dropping out of the top eight unless we can win against an Argentinian side that has just humbled the Welsh.
I want to be positive, I want to see a silver lining as I did before the Wallabies match last year, I really do. But after this performance I can only conclude that adding Feek & Foley to the ticket was nothing more than moving the deck-chairs on the Titanic. JLP
Also this weekend