Apologies in advance for starting this writeup off topic but it won’t take long to link it up to the main theme…
OK - maybe Belgium were better than the Republic of Ireland, possibly even three goals better. But if that double karate kick to Shane Long’s head gets given as a penalty like it should have done, it would have been a different ball game from then on. Maybe that’s an opinion laced with bias and bitterness, particularly when the Belgians opened the scoring themselves shortly afterwards, but it is also based on sound sporting precedent.
All too often it’s all too easy to “blame the ref” for a defeat, yet sometimes the fear of being seen to do that pushes us too far in the other direction, causing us to turn a blind eye which is ironically the same accusation we’re levelling at the official in question. We shouldn’t be afraid to at least add it to the post-match debate.
58 minutes gone at Emirates Airlines Park in Johannesburg. The Springboks have just scored their first try narrowing Ireland’s half-time lead to 9. With over 20 minutes left it looks to all intents and purposes that the home side are on their way back, especially when you consider the way sub and test debutante Ruan Combrinck steamrolled over Paddy Jackson to get to the line.
But Ireland hadn’t given up. Joe Schmidt’s teams may do a lot more kicking than many like to see, but the abiding principle is that we only ever do it with a strategy in place to win the ball back. If you can get the kick just right, a leaping back three player or a standing Devin Toner should be able to bat it towards his team-mates. And in the case of this restart, while it went a bit long, the Irish kick chasers were there ready to put maximum pressure on the opposition.
Sure enough when Faf de Klerk goes to clear for touch, he has his kick charged down by Tadhg Furlong, and the ball falls kindly for the Irish tight head to recover. When he’s about to get hold of the “pill” he gets grabbed by the Bok 9 and referee Angus Gardner calls a penalty for “tackling early”.
Here’s the thing...I felt that call was harsh at the time, even though the pic shows it to be correct. There’s a fraction of a second in it and I doubt I’d be harping on it now had it not been given. But the fact remains, it was, so why was nobody talking about a yellow card? Surely that’s exactly the kind of offence for which the punishment exists? Since it was just over 5m out from the tryline you could even dip your toe into “penalty try” waters, though in fairness you wouldn’t make much of a splash.
Yes, Ireland went on to score a try anyway (a good one too from Heaslip off a maul). And no, we can’t guarantee that we’d have been any more resistant to the Springbok onslaught which followed with an extra man. The reason I’m leading off my writeup with it is that I seem to be the only one who thought it was worth mentioning. It’s off my chest now so I will leave it there.
The match itself was the tale of a lead built and then lost, which is something to which Irish fans are painfully accustomed. Yet while on paper the concession of 22 points in the last 16 minutes is unacceptable, there are actually mitigating factors for us to take into account.
But first, let’s travel the road to that 16-point lead, and it is one laden with sound tactics, accurate execution, and also quality contributions from those either brought into the side or finding themselves in different roles.
Whether it’s with the ball or without, we operate a “high risk” strategy that demands precision. First, our offensive plan - as I said earlier, we go to the boot more often than most, yet when it’s done with the right amount of back-up it can be a potent weapon. And even when our halfbacks were kicking for touch on purpose, normally off the early restarts, they were getting good distance on them.
Say what you like about the negative aspects of this approach (the Boks’ coach certainly did during the week) but when you’ve already won a test match on foreign soil and you have your hosts fired up to come after you, it really makes a lot of sense to send them back towards their own try line as much as possible, and if it’s working then why stop doing it.
Then we have defence, and for the opening three quarters we were having the same kind of success, mostly with another high-risk strategy, something the South African commentators called a “gang tackle”. First guys gets the man, second guy attempts to strip the ball. It’s very risky because two players have to get the timing absolutely spot on otherwise they’re both out of the equation. Yet time after time after time we were forcing turnovers be it Jackson, Best, Trimble, the list goes on (final turnover count was 10-2 in our favour).
Finally there’s discipline. The penalty count was 9-8 to the home side but it wasn’t just about the amount of penalties, more their location on the pitch. Jantjies did have some kickable chances but the furthest forward we were pinged was Madigan at the very death and to be fair to him, we really needed a turnover at that point so the potential reward justified the risk.
The fact remains that the bulk of the South African no-nos came in their own half and Paddy Jackson was doing a decent job slotting them, particularly in the early stages to get us 12-3 in front, an advantage we would have been very happy with going into the break.
But shortly after the Boks outhalf missed a couple of penalties from the same location, we went back to our high-kicking ways and a “heads-up” knock back from Andrew Trimble kept the ball in play for Jared Payne to recover and carry towards the line, and with Rhys Ruddock (who had a stellar outing considering he’s probably about 5th in line for that 7 jersey) providing the support, carry and offload, Devin Toner’s task falling over the line was made very easy.
So there we were at halftime with a 16-point cushion. Here is where that dreaded word “altitude” came into play. Not that I’m saying that it affects you physically at that stage of a game, but it certainly has to affect you mentally as you’ll have heard about the horrors of the Highveld but you’re imagination can only take you so far.
Look...much like the de Klerk thing earlier, I’m not going to highlight the altitude simply because I see it as a ready-made excuse, but it is definitely a factor that cannot be ignored. It plays a part in sport all over the world...the Denver-based Colorado Rockies benefit it from it in baseball, the Ecuador soccer team saw the benefit qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, and it certainly doesn’t hurt anyone used to playing in Johannesburg. Does that mean sport should be banned from those places? Of course not.
Yet as this match wore on you could actually see it in our players. Sure, we were able to make eight substitutions but that still guarantees seven will be forced to play the full 80 and a few of them like Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw probably knew from the off they were expected to. I can’t actually relate to what it was like for them but comparing their efforts in the first quarter to those in the last, fatigue simply had to be a factor in the missed tackles.
And it wasn’t just a matter of being unable to stop the Boks from ploughing over us either...in those closing stages we went from a team well able to stay focused with the ball to one which was unable to sustain possession in open play. Our restarts after the first three South African tries were all superb and we won the ball back each time, yet in those key last 10-15 minutes when we needed to be able to keep the ball down that end of the pitch, our ability to do the basics seemed to evaporate.
Of course we cannot ignore the contributions of the home side, whose progression through the match was the polar opposite to ours. They got a very poor return from their starting XV overall with missed tackles and sloppy passes happening all over the pitch on top of the poor discipline. But each time they went to their bench they seemed to have the perfect option to fix what was ailing them. Redelinghuis for Malherbe. Whiteley for Vermeulen. And most of all there was Combrinck on for Mvovo - what a potent weapon...he surely has to start the 3rd test and I’d even consider him in the centre.
And so the lead was whittled away in those closing stages with an increasing air of inevitability. I discovered one thing during that time...if you’re watching sport on TV in front of your kids and you’re tempted to swear on occasion, shouting “Ah, FFFFFFFFaf de Klerk!!!!” is a handy family-friendly alternative. That’s nothing against the man himself, by the way...outside that one tackle he had a fine outing, it’s just about the way his name sounds when I’d rather be screaming something else!!!
So to summarize...our starters were knackered, our bench was inferior and we should’ve had the benefit an extra man at a crucial time. Yet having watched this match back I can’t help but feel my disappointment at the time was too closely tied to that which I felt after the soccer in Bordeaux that came before it. If you can’t see the positives from our second test performance then you’re not really looking.
The net result for Joe Schmidt is a series of selection dilemmas for the decisive test next Saturday. Some of them are the good kind, with CJ Stander back available yet with Henderson doing well at 6, Roux proving his doubters wrong and Dillane waiting in the wings, his spot can’t be guaranteed. Other decisions are not so desirable, because having been shown right to move Payne to 15 Joe would have probably been counting on well over 200 on-field minutes for Robbie Henshaw wearing the 13 jumper in the overall series.
I reckon we’ll compete and could well be ahead by the 50-60m mark but I’m not sure we have enough on the bench to bring it home.
But while I was accurate with my prediction (for once ha ha) I’m still managing to stay positive about the way things stand for Irish rugby right now. Four provinces in Europe wasn’t nothing, That heroic win in Cape Town wasn’t nothing. Then there’s the amazing performances & results from the #Wolfpuppies over in Manchester.
And despite the absence of so many regulars, who is to say we can’t reach the dizzy heights of a southern hemisphere series win in Port Elizabeth next Saturday to round off what has been a freakishly long campaign? You know Joe, Rory & co will believe it possible, so why shouldn’t we. JLP
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