It was a weekend that was meant to be about European football yet ended up being one that was all about Irish rugby.
Maybe, just maybe, if the Euro2016 schedule had the Republic of Ireland playing on Saturday instead of Monday, the focus on these two massive wins in Manchester and Cape Town wouldn’t have been as strong, but we’ll never know.
What we do know is that this 2015/16 test season, which seemed destined to be remembered for nothing but doom and gloom. now has a silver lining which would be tough to erase even with defeats in tests two and three, hard though some would surely try.
Before we get to the match in question, I must first record just what an incredible day for watching rugby it was overall. I had been harping on it all through the week...once the Super Rugby season kicks off there is always a full schedule of telly egg-chasing to be seen of a Saturday but it’s never like this...All Blacks v Wales, Wallabies v England were the appetizers for Irish fans, and Baby Blacks v Wolfpuppies and this clash in Cape Town providing the double-helping main course.
Normally I have to be selective and let the early morning matches go in order for things get get done around Harpin Manor but not this weekend. Plans were made long in advance, deals were struck and the schedule was cleared. But not even with my maximum-strength green goggles could I have foreseen those two amazing performances and results after lunch.
I will deal with the Under 20s later in the week, and who would have thought that there was a chance for their historic achievement could possibly outdone just a couple of hours later. The bookies, who had been scarily accurate all throughout the season, put the Springboks as whopping 15-point favourites, and that was assuming both teams played the 80 minutes with a full complement of players.
PART II : PRE-INCIDENT
From the kickoff the ball doesn’t even have a chance to hit the ground when we have our first incident as Devin Toner rose to inevitably take the catch only to be fouled. Penalty to Ireland and double digits yet to be reached in the seconds column.
Then off the resulting lineout anyone who had spent time analysing Joe Schmidt since he took the Irish reins would assume we’d go straight for the “power play” option but instead the ball went through the hands from one end of the pitch to the other, and as we near the opposition 22 we win yet another penalty, which leads to yet another attacking lineout.
Now we were to see a familiar Schmidt tactic as Conor Murray, arguably the world’s greatest exponent of the box kick, launches one that the Springbok backfield find difficult to deal with and hey presto we have a scrum in their 22 with the match just a couple of minutes old.
Unfortunately for us Murray took a bit longer feeding the scrum than the referee wanted so the home side had a chance to clear, but given how this game turned out I think it’s important to point out how well we were doing even before our backs were up against the wall.
Soon it was the turn of Allister Coetzee’s men to have their first spell of possession and they too were keen to ship it to the wing, only in their case they clearly fancied their chances stacking the numbers in the wider channels, assuming our defensive structures would be similar to those so clinically exploited by the Pumas in Cardiff.
But even at that early stage there was something about the South Africans particularly when they had the ball. Cynics would probably argue they were a fraction off the pace on account of their getting used to a new coaching set up. I’d be more inclined to say they were knocked off their game by a combination of determined Irish line speed and a tackling approach which was definitely risky height-wise yet more often than not shut down any desire the home side may have had to gain any momentum.
The net result of this focused start from Ireland was a warning issued to Bok captain Adrian Strauss for too many penalties after just 8 minutes, and once more we had an attacking set piece around their 22, this time a lineout. After a well organised maul we gain another penalty...surely this itself should have been a card but M Reynal seemed to be willing to give another last chance, so we kick for touch again.
Now there’s another penalty advantage in our favour but we seemed to have decent go forward ball this time. I’d have assumed we’d let our forwards trundle through a series of phases to see if a gap could be found but Luke Marshall had a different plan, dinking a ball through “rugby league style” and with Henshaw and Payne running through just as they often did when they were centre partners, the latter got the touch down and hey presto we had a very deserved lead.
I really thought the ref was going to ignore his warning about the repeated fouling but to be fair to him he did go back and put Lood de Jager in the bin, so it really was a good sequence for Ireland though as it was still very early it was important that we make the most of that man advantage (or so we thought!).
There wasn’t a whole lot of surprise in our shipping a penalty shortly after the restart, with Heaslip pinged for coming in at the side as the ref was no doubt looking for a reason to restore some kind of balance to the penalty count. Lambie made up for an earlier miss with a score to get his side on the board.
Shortly after the restart we were back to getting the ball quickly to our wingers and this time it was Keith Earls motoring towards the opposition 22. 10 phases into this sequence we get another penalty advantage, which has me curious about the whole “persistent fouls” thing...once you award a card for it, does the team then have a clean slate or should you continue carding until they get the message?
Anyway...nothing comes of our attack with the advantage and as the home TV network displays a graphic showing “SA-7 IRE-2” in “penalties conceded”, Jackson restored our 7-point lead in the category that mattered most.
So as you can see, in the “Pre-red” phase of the game, Ireland were very much in control, which is definitely a testament to our preparation. Then we had what seemed to be a routine Springbok lineout around halfway.
PART III : PRE-MATURE FANS’ WORRY
Lambie had already gotten his kick away so I was following the ball only to hear Sky commentator Mark Robson go “Whoa!!!!!”. We all know now what actually happened.
I have to choose my words carefully here, because while like most observers I don’t think a red should have been awarded, I don’t hold the view that it was “never a red”. As the TMO pored over the endless replays, Alan Quinlan kept stressing that it was all about intent - yet while I know I should bow to his superior knowledge on the sport, I have to disagree in this area.
Not for the first time on this site I feel I have to highlight the word “reckless”. Basically if you commit to an action like swinging your arm, flailing your boot or in this case, jumping in the air towards an opponent while turning your back, though your intention may be anything but causing harm, you must still take some kind of responsibility for the result.
We hear a lot said these days about how slow motion replays can make collisions look worse...actually the way I saw this one, it looked as bad as it possibly could when shown in “real time”. Thankfully Lambie was up and about before halftime as things turned out, but his chances did not look good at the time the referee had to make his decision.
Still, where I think M Reynal began to go wrong in this process was when he allowed play to continue for so long after the incident happened. It was a clear head injury, and if he couldn’t see that himself surely one of his assistants could have warned him. I have a feeling he realised this failing once the play did eventually stop and thus it put him in a frame of mind to view a harsher punishment.
Personally, I think the challenge was in red territory, but no more than “50/50” which means the ref should have used his discretion and gone for yellow instead, allowing a citing committee to review and judge at a later date. I firmly believe that even though Lambie took no further part in the contest, the South Africans wouldn’t have had too many complaints with that outcome.
Yet off Stander went and what a shame it was for him in particular on this occasion which clearly meant so much to him. Of course, that couldn’t be taken into account by the officials, but we can certainly acknowledge it as fans. Oh, and one last thing. Contrary to some opinions I have heard, this was NOTHING CLOSE to the Heaslip-on-McCaw red in 2010. That most definitely was a red all day long.
Another thing we were acknowledging as fans was that despite our good start and seven point lead, the writing was probably on the wall. Had this happened with even a half hour to go you’d have backed us to hold on, but when it’s closer to an hour, given as well that we were so far from home, there seemed an air of inevitability about how the rest of the game would go.
PART IV : PRE-PARE TO CELEBRATE
For the next spell it looked as though the fears were going to be realised...a penalty from replacement Jantjies, followed by Paddy Jackson putting the restart out of the full, followed by a penalty off the resulting scrum, followed by a continuing series of phases in our 22 from the Boks, followed by the Mvovo try off a scrum, yet another dot-down to go hand in hand with a yellow card, only this time it was Robbie Henshaw.
Was Luke Marshall obstructed in the lead up to that try? Meh. Perhaps the ref and TMO between them could have acknowledged it and had a look, and I can certainly appreciate Rory Best’s frustration given what had gone before, but as Mvovo was running full tilt on a line that took him away from our inside centre I’m not so sure it was a clear cut as many make out. At the time I had it filed under “inevitable outcomes on a day that just wasn’t meant to be”.
Clutching at straws I thought maybe if we could get to halftime still just the three points down we’d have a fighting chance, though by that I probably meant “...of not losing by a cricket score”. Thankfully the boys out on the pitch didn’t see things the same way - our awesomeness kicked back into gear the moment we went behind on the scoreboard and we never looked back.
Remember...at this stage we were TWO MEN DOWN. You could have forgiven us for being keen to kill time under those circumstances, yet instead we were keen to get the ball as deep as we possibly could in their territory. Ye gods, that shows some faith in our defence doesn’t it. With Payne putting a long grubber through here and Conor Murray taking a quick tap free kick there we did indeed put the pressure right back on to our hosts who mustn’t have known what was hitting them.
Then after a strong strike move off a lineout, Payne found a way through getting us inside their 22 and after about six phases, something I never thought I’d see again from an Irish team...an attempt at a drop goal well before the final moments of a match. Honestly...I didn’t know we had it in us! It was absolutely the right call under those circumstances and what’s more, Jackson’s kick was true and the scores were unbelievably level yet again.
Now the job was certainly to bring the scoreline back to the dressing room, and while the Boks did their utmost to make the extra manpower count, they only got near our line in the widest possble spot and even then there were two men in green there (Jackson and Payne this time) to bundle them into touch and end the period.
That was an amazing end to the half, yet you still had to assume we’d crack t some point. Again, we have to be grateful that our boys didn’t feel the same. During the “dark times” from October to March we were apparently crying out for leadership. Well, this time we had it in spades.
Clearly the half-time tactics work was spot on and just two minutes into the second period off another set play from a lineout we saw Jared Payne joining the line and orchestrating a sublime reverse offload to his Ulster teammate Andrew Trimble on the touchline who got us deep into their backfield.
We caught a bit of a break as Willie Le Roux jarred the ball free only for it to come to Rory Best who took it up gratefully to keep the attack going. After the recycle Conor Murray took it up, saw Mike Ross as his primary passing option and probably thought it best to go himself instead. He gets hit by the gargantuan Eben Etzebeth but somehow is able to break through the challenge and make it the rest of the way to the line.
Rubbing my eyes to make sure I’m seeing this right after Jackson lands the extra two, i take in the scoreline graphic. 20-13??? To us??? Really???
It’s only from here on in that it starts to become abundantly clear that whether you wish to pin praise on us or blame on our opponents, this match is clearly there for the taking even with a man down. And as the play rolled on, while mistakes were being made here and there, it was still as though the Irish players were actively competing with each other for the man of the match award.
From the backline you had Jared Payne with his intelligent contributions (that wasn’t to be his only sly offload of the day), Earls and Trimble like workhorses along the touchline and while I’d never thought I’d be attributing “unseen work” to centres, Messrs Marshall and Henshaw were generally doing theirs to perfection.
Then we had the pack...Rory Best had his best outing to date as skipper, in the back row out of necessity Jordi and Jamie were doing the work of three men (except of course at scrum time when Trimble ably pitched in!) and while Devin Toner was a great shout as man of the match, it could have gone to anyone, not least Iain Henderson alongside him in the second row.
Personally I was all set to make my own nomination for the MotM gong...Paddy Jackson. He was making his place kicks, he was running his back line, he was playing smart rugby - basically erasing all doubts I had about him before kickoff. Until, of course, on a routine series of “exit sets” in his own 22 he gifts a ball to Steph du Toit who ran under the posts to being the Boks back within 6 points.
Tough on Jackson perhaps, but my choice of award now went to Conor Murray, for his try, for a ripped turnover at a key stage and for his series of box kicks all of which had successful outcomes...until he tried one too many, right after I tweeted that he was my MotM no less, giving the home side one last go at our line. As a sidenote, I reckoned it was better for Ireland that someone else chooses the best player on the day!
In those closing stages I was reminded of a thought that crept into my brain earlier that morning as I watched the All Blacks put away the Welsh…”Ah I see Ryan Crotty is playing. That’s a name Irish fans won’t forget in a hurry”. Safe to say it looked to all intents and purposes that the South African version of Crotty was about to make himself a hero.
But nobody gave that script to our brave 14-man defence. By all means let us heap the praise on Andy Farrell but let us not forget the defensive coach who came before him either. No matter how many times the Boks stacked the wider channels they just could not get around our scrambling right up to the very end of the game when Payne, Henshaw, Jackson and Ruddock all combined to bundle JP Pietersen into touch and bring about a historic first victory on South African soil for Ireland.
I was exhausted at the full-time whistle. I’m exhausted now after harping on the match for longer down the page than usual! Nowhere near as exhausted as the players would have been though. It was an heroic effort, one that cannot be taken from them. Can we reach even more new heights in Johannesburg, and not just in altitude terms? Of course we can. After this, anything is possible.
For now, let’s enjoy what happened this weekend...remember...not only did the Under 20s also make history but in the world of senior 7s rugby there was a trophy for the men and a very respectable 4th place finish for the girls among the best in Europe.
Of course we wish both M O’Neill-led Irish teams in France all the best over the coming weeks but the past couple of days have given a perfect reminder that no matter what your provincial allegiance it’s a great time to love Irish rugby. JLP