By Phil Rice
Athoroughly professional performance by Joe Schmidt’s team at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday, destroyed a bewildered and downcast South African team.
The forward battle was ferocious as Ireland ground the Springbok pack into submission and then ran in 21 points in the final ten minutes. The final score of 38-3 accurately reflected Ireland’s dominance.
Ireland have now won six of the last ten meetings between these teams. Before we belittle the efforts of the South African team we need to appreciate that their forward pack are a very capable unit and the battle up front was intense, but Ireland never took a backward step and eventually came out on top.
The Springbok back division was toothless and with Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki wreaking havoc in midfield, they never threatened to break down the watertight Irish defence, let alone score a try. For Aki, Saturday was the culmination of a long-term ambition.
He said: “It was a long journey for myself and my family. “It’s been a hell of a journey, a hell of a night, I’m lost for words. Putting on the Irish jersey, it’s a privilege. The amount of support I got I can’t thank everyone enough.”
The Irish supporters have clearly taken this likeable man to their hearts. He got the biggest cheer of all when his name was announced before kick-off. Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale on the wings were outstanding and will take some dislodging from the first-choice team. Johnny Sexton picked up his obligatory man of the match award and Conor Murray was his usual professional self.
This is a very strong Irish side and South Africa will be aware the two teams may well meet in the quarter-final of the 2019 World Cup. Not a prospect they will relish after Saturday’s game.
Second-row is not normally a high-profile position on the pitch, but Iain Henderson and Devin Toner were the pick of the impressive Irish pack. Henderson made some barnstorming runs, brushing aside flailing Springboks in his wake.
Toner had one of his best performances in an Irish shirt. He dominated the line out and put in a phenomenal 80-minute stint in the loose. His tackle count for such a big man was outstanding.
CJ Stander was another stand out performer against the country of his birth. He carries the ball relentlessly and almost always gains hard yards for his team. Sean O’Brien was a huge physical presence which is so important against such a powerful team.
It is a measure of how far Irish rugby has come during Schmidt’s reign as coach, that this week he will probably start with 15 different players and still be firm favourites to beat Fiji on Saturday.
In order to perform at a World Cup it is vital that the quality of your second string is very high. We only have to recall our experience at the hands of Argentina in the quarter-final of the last World Cup.
When Ireland lost key players they paid the price for not having sufficient strength in depth. Schmidt has gone out of his way to develop a strong team of reserves and to bring on the next generation of international players.
Ireland ought to be in the best shape they have ever been in, to make an assault on the 2019 World Cup. After Saturday’s game the Irish coach emphasised the concerns he had before the match.
He said: “I was really worried before the game, just because of that last game South Africa had played, and the quality of their players and coaches.
“It is incredibly satisfying to go out, watch the players bring the energy and accuracy, most of the time, that they did. “I grew up watching South Africa teams pretty dominant when they were at their peak. I don’t actually think this Springbok team is very far away from that. It’s satisfying, it’s a relief.”
South Africa’s Coach Allister Coetzee commented after the game: “Our inconsistency for me is something I’d like to see improve in a big way.
“The Jekyll and Hyde element, at times we play well. I cannot see anything like this changing in a short space of time. It’s difficult to explain, there are no positives from our side to be honest.
“It’s a disappointing defeat, as a group we take full responsibility, we let ourselves down and our support back home. We just have to fight our way back from this one. “I have to give credit to Ireland, they played tactically very, very well.
“We lacked patience in our kicking game, and they showed us that you have to have patience, build from penalty.
“We got off to a terrible start. The big things for me were the scrum, set-piece, and breakdown, and our discipline too. That all let us down.”
Ireland’s opponents this week are Fiji who gave a muchimproved full strength Italy team a scare at the weekend, losing 19-10 in the end. Ireland will have to match the high physical intensity the South Sea Islanders bring.
The game will provide Ireland’s fringe players with the opportunity to demonstrate their credentials, and Schmidt will want to build on his team’s five-match winning streak as they head for a competitive Six Nations campaign.