Monday, November 10, 2014

IRELAND-29 SOUTH AFRICA-15

© Dan Sheridan/www.Inpho.ie

"We tend to start the first game in the autumn pretty slowly against a team that's been together for a long time, so you know we can really build on that." - Warren Gatland after Wales’ 28-33 defeat to Australia

Dear, oh dear Gats, what have you done?



Sure, he had no way of knowing what Ireland were going to do later that same evening when he said the above, but still he has highlighted the magnitude of what we achieved and in turn raised Joe Schmidt’s Lions 2017 prospects even higher.

Yes, I’m going there.  I feel I have to, because if he isn’t coaching us on that New Zealand tour, he could well be coaching the All Blacks and if we’re going to make a move it needs to be long before RWC2015.

Time and time again in recent years we have seen examples of teams being emphatically caught out when they seemed to presume that recent success would guarantee them victory.  Munster at Croke Park in 2009.  England at the Aviva Stadium in 2011.  Ireland in Wellington, also in 2011.  Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in 2013.   

Most recently we had Gatland, still dining out on his Lions success, bring his Welsh squad to Dublin for his first confrontation with Joe Schmidt who was only in charge for his fifth test match.  As we all know the visitors didn’t get a look in that day, and the margin was a key factor in our winning the championship.

What’s interesting about those examples is that in some cases it was the ambusher turned into ambushee, namely Kidney and Gatland.  Well Saturday evening in Dublin, Joe Schmidt became the ambusher for the second time this year and from the looks of things it will take a monumental effort to turn the tables on him.

Long, long, gone are the days when the week leading into a Test match meant pretty much the same thing for many fans as it did for players - two nights of training in the midst of full-time jobs during the day.


Now, the player’s full-time job IS rugby, and for Ireland that means time spent on training pitches and in DVD sessions at Carton House.  Joe Schmidt has made no secret since he took the reins that he craves every possible moment with his players out there, and with that extra time comes an expectation that when the big occasions arrive, everyone will be ready.


Well, I think we can safely say that from the very kickoff on Saturday we were shown that all that extra time was used to full effect.


Maybe Rob Kearney was a tad late on Willie le Roux in the 2nd minute and this thwarted an early attacking opportunity, but that particular incident had a greater significance.  There’s no way in the world the Springboks would have been expecting such a kick in that situation so early in the contest and it had to get them wondering just what else this Irish squad had up their sleeve.


Just a minute later, they were to find out.  I have seen teams stand off a line out before to negate the effectiveness of a maul, but the discipline required to maintain a situation whereby someone like Jack McGrath can run around and legally grab the last man is definitely new for this squad, and quite the introduction to the highest level of coaching for Simon Easterby.


The overall offensive strategy was both simple and well founded - set the table with some phases and if the crash ball was getting nowhere, which it probably wouldn’t against this big Bok lineup, at least we would have drawn in enough of their forwards to lay bare some intelligent kicking options.


But what Kearney’s early over-eagerness showed was that we would never put boot to ball without a plan in place to get it back and we persisted with this plan for the opening ten minutes - the only drawback being that it netted just the three points and the visitors were yet to show us just what they had in store for us with the ball.


On the Springboks' first attack, the fears we had about our untried centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne appeared to be coming true as a simple enough combination between Le Roux (easily their strongest attacking threat), De Villiers and Serfontein cut through our first line but soon afterwards we showed them just how good our scramble defence is and their young outside centre was pressured into throwing a pass straight into touch...and it wasn’t the last time a Springbok pass was to find turf before team-mate.


The visitors had a taste for the ball now, and  for the remainder of the contest they were to have a lot of it.  Despite our dominating possession and territory in those opening exchanges we lost out overall heavily in both areas (43%-57% and a whopping 38%-62% respectively, though these were compounded by the Boks' stubborn insistence on kicking pens to the corners).  What we needed to survive this onslaught was two things - a well-organised defence and good exit strategies and thankfully we had an abundance of both.


But as half time came and our lead was 6-3, several realities were never far from the back of our minds as fans....this is precisely the same Springbok 23 that defeated the All Blacks,  we have a host of injuries which have left us with an extremely vulnerable bench, and  as much as we didn’t want to remember, there’s Ryan Crotty’s dagger to the heart last November.  We knew the Springboks would come back at us strong; the question was, could we hold out?


Luckily all those fears and doubts stopped in their tracks at the Irish dressing room door.  Inside the conversation was clearly restricted to how we could adapt the hard work done earlier in the week to make sure we kept that lead for good.


This belief that our players had, clearly honed after endless reps in Schmidt’s “mind gym”, helped Tommy Bowe retrieve his own kick, it helped Robbie Henshaw boot it deep into the Bok 22 with an intelligence well beyond his 3 previous caps, and finally it helped our lineout maul outfox the visiting defence enough for it to part like a bottle-green sea for Rhys Ruddock, who wasn’t even meant to start, to fall over the line.


Only three minutes gone in the second period and already the Springboks were two scores behind, and a few minutes later their next attack was thwarted by the excellent Jack McGrath who locked his body position and forced one of the most crucial of the 19 turnovers the number 2-ranked team in the world coughed up on the day.


It was clearly time for Meyer’s bench to be sprung and whether Schalk Burger’s arrival was met with a “boo!” by Irish fans or perhaps the odd “Luuuuuke!” thrown in as well I’m not sure...either way it was clear that the next few phases of play were crucial.


Eventually our defence did buckle and the delight in the visiting pack was obvious as we chose to compete at a lineout maul close to our line which allowed Coetzee to power over.  The gap was now just three again and the final quarter fast approaching.  


But one saving grace was that it took a whole lot of effort (almost 15m of pressure) on the part of the South Africans to get that score and once we could keep our resolve there was no guarantee they could get  back again.


We kept plugging away defensively as we had done, and the first off our own bench Richardt Strauss announced his arrival with an excellent strip allowing us to clear - except after that clearance from Sexton he seemed to do something to his leg which had every Irish fan worried...worries which were compounded when he scuffed a kick to touch moments later.


Then there was a high tackle on Jamie Heaslip and we had a chance to both kill some clock and extend the lead back to six.  How was Johnny’s leg?  It was grand and despite the shouts of a few idiots in the crowd he nailed it to make the score 16-10.


Still a lot of work to do.  But our stubborn defence was making the visitors work so hard for their points that there was always the danger of their working a bit too hard for their own good.  Enter their own substitute hooker, Adrian Strauss, Richardt’s cousin.


Of course as an Irish fan I’d have to say that his challenge on Kearney was a yellow card all day long.  And it probably was, since he made no attempt to see where the ball was and hit the Irish full back before he landed.  


I don’t think referee Romain Poite did himself any favours by apologetically explaining to Jean de Villiers that he was issuing yellow based on the earlier high tackle by another Springbok...I reckon this challenge did enough on its own.  


But whatever way you look at it, while the decision may have affected the winning margin it certainly didn’t decide the victors.


Now it was time for us to have some possession and territory again, and once more we were using the ball wisely, with Sexton planting a kick into the corner which Ryle Nugent couldn’t stop himself describing as “O’Gara-esque”, and which forced them to use an alternative dart-thrower in number 8 Duane Vermeulen.


The clock hits 70 minutes.  Peter O'Mahony pinching that Bok lineout leads to Ireland winning a kickable penalty which will give us a two-score lead.  The rugby gods in their infinite cruelty decreed that this must be taken by Sexton at virtually the same spot as that which he missed against the All Blacks, with margin and time of game virtually identical to boot.


No problem to the man.  He nailed the kick, cemented his man-of-the-match award, and set the scene for Irish commentators down the line to go searching for the phrase “Sexton-esque”.  19-10 to Ireland; the Boks now need two scores.

Up to this point, the Ireland performance was only missing one element with the Joe Schmidt stamp - the set play forged on the training pitch to go up against what was expected from the opposition defence.  Leave it to Conor Murray and Tommy Bowe to provide it.

Yes, the planning was impressive...they clearly knew that Bryan Habana could be easily tempted off of his wing.  Yes, the execution was impressive...pinpoint kick from Murray, perfect timing by Bowe in the take and touch down.  But what about calling this play at that stage of the game?  Took serious cojones if you ask me.

It was one of those borderline calls that’s genius if it works and crazy if it doesn’t.  And it worked.

Just how much Joe Schmidt had asked of his starting XV was shown by all of FIVE substitutions right after the decisive try, including Sexton himself after making what was probably the most impressive of his place kicks giving him 6 from 6 on the day.

I haven’t spoken too much about individuals up to now because this epic victory was a team effort from the players on the pitch to everyone at Carton House.  But there were some other standout displays apart from Sexton.

Jack McGrath shipped a penalty or more than he’d have liked at scrum time but more than made up for it  by leading the tackle count and forcing key turnovers.  Rob Kearney showed no signs of an injury lay off and Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony and Rhys Ruddock fronted up extremely well to the powerful back row they were up against.

Of course it wasn't all plain sailing for us - the Boks had the upper hand at scrums & lineouts but what good was that to them when they couldn't turn it into enough points? Still, if nothing else it gives us something significant to work on!

If I had to pick a weak spot on the Irish starting XV I’d probably get into trouble for naming Simon Zebo,  but  it wouldn’t be so much because of anything he did (though the Springboks' late consolation try was down his wing) more that he didn’t appear to be a factor in anything Ireland were trying offensively.

One thing I also noticed - the match maybe have been over as a contest but I still thought Ian Madigan's late placekick was worth a mention. It looks like he has also been working out at the Schmidt mind gym and maybe we'll learn more about this next weekend.

Last but not least I have to mention Henshaw and Payne.  After a shaky start they settled into the game and both were heavily involved, mostly on defence where they needed to be strong and were.  Guess what folks, we now have two brand new midfield options for 2015.  No Irish fan will be happier about that than BOD himself.

Now it’s perspective time.  Of course this was an amazing display, so much so that even George Hook tucked in to a super-size portion of his own words at full time. (though I had to grab a plate myself; I had the Boks by 4 in my preview!) But I reckon Hooky over-indulged, probably mischievously, when he talked about probable World Cup success on the strength of it.

We have overturned one of the world’s greatest sides thanks to intelligent planning and making the most of a touch of complacency on the part of our opposition.  But as my examples earlier have shown, it is very easy for the tables to be turned and we have a coach capable of doing just that coming up against us in two weeks’ time.

One thing we can say quite categorically - we can put our trust in Joe to have us ready for Michael Cheika’s Wallabies, though not without putting in a hard week’s work to explore more squad options against Georgia first.

But for this one off test, I can offer nothing but congratulations to everyone involved.  Joe says transition is a continuum - if so I can think of no better coach in world rugby to be in charge of ours.

Final words go to tweet I saw on my timeline today - it says it all about what the win means to us as fans.
#ShoulderToShoulder  #JLP


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Also last weekend

Next week
(all times Irish)

Fri Nov 14
Canada v Samoa, Vannes, 6pm

Sat Nov 15
Italy v Argentina, Genoa, 2pm
Romania v Japan, Bucharest, 2pm
England v South Africa, Twickenham, 2:30pm
Wales v Fiji, Millennium Stadium,  2:30pm
Scotland v New Zealand, Murrayfield, 5:30pm
France v Australia, Stade de France, 8pm

Sun Nov 16
Ireland v Georgia, Aviva Stadium, 2:30pm
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