Former Leinster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions winger Denis Hickie joins Balls.ie to offer up his analysis of the Autumn Internationals.
A game of two halves if ever there was one. Ireland “won” the first half pretty convincingly but South Africa won the second without argument. The problem for Declan kidney’s side was that South Africa scored more points when they were on top than Ireland managed when the match belonged to them in the opening 40 minutes.
Ireland grafted hard to take the upper hand going into the dressing room at the interval. They were as physical as the challenge required (you really can’t afford to be any other way and expect to win against SA) and they played it tactically almost perfectly – play all the rugby in South Africa’s half, force them to try and play out of the half or kick the ball away and have a fast, organized and highly aggressive line speed in defence. It was this last aspect in particular, so lacking when Ireland lost on the opening weekend of the Six Nations against Wales last February, which yielded so much reward. South Africa, on the back foot from the word go, gave away ten penalties by half time – a criminal amount that would have any coach apoplectic with rage during the half-time team talk.
I wondered, somewhat fearfully, how the SA team would react to the hairdryer treatment that was almost certainly meted out by Heineke Meyer at the interval. A 20 yard rolling maul that was to lead up to Ruan Pienarr’s try was my answer. Of course, the real turning point was the sin-binning of Jamie Heaslip for blatantly trying to bring down the aforementioned rolling maul. South Africa scored a point for every minute Irelands new captain was off the field. Ultimately the game was won and lost in that period. From then on SA turned the tables on Ireland and forced them to play out of their own half. Ireland didn’t score a point in the second half and really never came close to scoring a try. That aspect in particular will have been of great disappointment to the Irish management.
The positives from this display were the performance (and first half dominance) of the Irish scrum. The line-out too was near perfect – I counted only one loss – which will have been of some consolation to the SA born and Irish debutant Richardt Strauss. The defence too was organized, aggressive and crucially, disciplined in the first half (Ireland gave only 4 penalties away in the opening 40). Johnny Sexton had an almost perfect day with the boot; though his penalty miss after South Africa went ahead cost Ireland some much needed momentum. Finally, I thought Mike McCarthy was excellent. All day he tackled and ran with immense aggression. Check out this hit on the giant, self-proclaimed SA “enforcer”, Eben Etzebeth – a serious hit from Ireland’s best player on the day.
The negatives are that Ireland failed to keep up the pace they set in the first half when the Bok’s raised their game after the break and that they couldn't score a try during the entire 90 minutes. However, the issue on everyone’s mind is that if Ireland now lose to Argentina (excellent and exciting in comprehensively beating Wales earlier in the day) in two weeks time, we will be dependent on others losing to keep our world ranking above 8 for the world cup seedings. The fact that the “others” who need to win are Scotland, will give Declan Kidney and Co. less comfort than you might imagine.