Ireland’s first match of the Guinness Series was against South Africa on Saturday 8th November.
Two sides, different stories
Both sides had contrasting positions coming into this match. The Springboks have had a long and gruelling year: the newly expanded Super Rugby season which now runs from February – August, broken up with two tests versus Wales and one against Scotland in the June international window. Combine this with back-to-back games against the All Blacks, Wallabies and the Pumas in the Rugby Championship, not to mention the travel and South Africa were certainly battle hardened. In contrast this was Ireland’s first encounter of the year. Not only this, but Ireland would have to make do without the services of many senior players. Speaking of the Rugby Championship, South Africa’s form was patchy at best – two narrow victories against an ever improving Argentina (13-6 in round one in Pretoria and 33-31 in the return fixture a week later) and a loss and a win versus an Australian outfit that was dogged with off field controversies that seemed to never end! Throw in a defeat to the old enemy New Zealand and the Boks campaign was not what many would have hoped for. However, piping the world champions in the final round in Johannesburg meant the tournament ended on a high, as South Africa ended a drought going back to August 2011 when they last beat the men in Black.
South Africa were unchanged from the side that beat the All Blacks last month
Three points of contact
The ruck, scrum and lineout were the three main areas that were sure to decide who came out on top. The Springboks are largely seen as the best in the business in both scrum and lineout departments and this was not lost on assistant coach Les Kiss prior to the match. “It’s still important to understand that they will go to the core part of their game,” acknowledged the Australian. “They will drive, they will run big forwards at you, their nines are savvy and canny players. They can shape that ruck area very nicely, so you’ve got to be aware of that.” With this in mind, one of the key one-on-one battles was always going to be in the second row between Paul O’Connell and Springbok stalwart Victor Matfield. Matfield had complemented his opposite number in the week leading up to the game – “I think Paul O’Connell is a fantastic player, I have said it before, I think he is probably the best player I have played against in my career. He is also a student of the line-out, you can see he puts in a lot of hours analysing and preparing, getting his whole unit ready for the weekend. It is always tough going up against him.”
Ready, Set, GO!
It was always going to be intriguing to see Joe Schmidt’s team selection for a number of reasons. Firstly, the question that the world and his mother had an opinion on – ‘who would play at centre?’ . Although Brian O’Driscoll was not present on Ireland’s tour of Argentina last June, many see this campaign as the start of the post O’Driscoll era. The most experienced player – Gordon D’Arcy – seemed to be in most people’s starting XV. As to who would partner him – Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw and newly Irish eligible Jared Payne were the front runners for a starting birth, with Leinster’s Ian Madigan an outside bet. Further interest as to Joe Schmidt’s plans was his selections given the ever growing injury list. Rory Best was withdrawn from contention due to an ongoing calf strain and joined the long list of those unavailable – Cian Healy, Marty Moore, Sean O’Brien, Jordi Murphy, Andrew Trimble, Luke Fitzgerald (only just returning to Leinster), Dave Kearney, Luke Marshall and Fergus McFadden. Good news however did come as Jonny Sexton was given the green light after he had to come off early in a match for club side Racing Metro the previous weekend. South Africa had injuries themselves, albeit not nearly as many as the home side. Ulster’s South African playmaker Ruan Pienaar was ruled out of the Boks entire tour as he failed to recover from a knee injury picked up against New Zealand in September, with Jano Vermaak being drafted in as cover for the remainder of the tour.
Jared Payne was picked at centre with Robbie Henshaw
The Springboks announced an unchanged 23 man squad from their recent victory over the All Blacks. Ireland’s centre partnership in this ‘new era’ was one of complete change with both Henshaw and Payne selected to start. Gordon D’Arcy, most people’s choice to start at 12 was omitted. Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross were selected at one, two and three respectively while Ireland’s back row saw a late change as Chris Henry, who was originally selected at openside was withdrawn on the day of the test and was replaced by Rhys Ruddock who partnered Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip. Rob Kearney was selected at fifteen although only recently passing fit due to on-going back issues.
All Systems Go
Dublin was hit by torrential rain in the morning and early afternoon on the day of the test that threatened to blight what had the potential of being a free flowing game given the Boks new expansive and attacking style. Thankfully it cleared up in time for the late kick off.
Kearney had spoken about Ireland’s “need to get out of the blocks really, really early” in the lead up to the match. Ironically the full backs first involvement was to take out Willie le Roux in the air in what was more a clumsy act rather than anything else.
The TMO was consulted in the opening minutes as French referee Romain Poite wanted another view of some potential foul play from South African flanker Marcell Coetzee. Heaslip took a heavy fall and Poite wanted another angle to see if Coetzee had led with the elbow when swatting off the Leinster man. Replays were inconclusive and play resumed with a scrum.
South Africa were by far the more dominant team. The vast majority of the first half was played between Ireland’s 10 metre and try line. With a conveyor belt of giants all chomping at the bit to get their hands on the ball, the South African pack regularly punched holes and constantly made the gain line. On top of this, Ireland coughed up possession as Matfield and Eben Etzebeth put on a master class in stealing lineouts. In spite of all of this it was Ireland that drew first blood as Sexton kicked a penalty after Jannie du Plessis was pinged for illegally scrummaging. Handre Pollard had an opportunity to draw level on 18 minutes but it went wide before Sexton doubled Ireland’s lead six minutes later. Ireland spent much of the remaining fifteen minutes of the first half camped deep in their own half. However South Africa’s lack of return was a huge psychological win for Ireland. The Springbok’s turned down a number of kickable penalties in the hope of pushing for a five pointer. With their huge pack and position on the pitch who could blame them? Despite this energy sapping pressure, Ireland’s defence was incredible. The Boks finally conceded ‘defeat’ and on the stroke of half time choose to go for goal having exhausted all other avenues to get on the score board. Ireland led 6-3 at the break.
While clichéd as it sounds, Ireland couldn’t have asked for a better start after the interval. Tommy Bowe collected his own up and under and the ensuing attack saw Henshaw hack the ball down field which sat perfectly five metres from the Boks try line. Le Roux scrambled back to cover but could only prod it into touch. Ireland now had an attacking lineout on the Springbok’s door step. The ball went to the front of the lineout and after a quick maul and some miscommunication between South African scrum half Francois Hougaard and his pack, the Bok defence parted like the Red Sea and Ruddock cantered in. Sexton converted from out wide and Ireland led by 10.
Rhys Ruddock scores the games opening try
South Africa continued to lack the execution to convert huge amounts of possession into points as handling errors and poor discipline continued to cost them. However, it was never going to last forever and eventually after another successful lineout by commander in chief Matfield, the Boks got a good maul rolling and crossed the Irish line. Coetzee came up with the ball and the Boks were back into it. Sexton kicked another goal five minutes later but the game looked like it could swing either way as both sides looked to deal a killer blow. And so it came! On 67 minutes Kearney was taken out in the air by a swinging arm from South Africa’s substitute hooker Adrian Strauss and Poite referred it to the TMO Jim Yuille. After much consultation the referee decided to sin bin the hooker as Duane Vermeulen had only just been warned about a high tackle and the official had had enough.
One infringement too many…. Strauss was sent to the bin!
Ireland stretched their lead a few minutes later with another penalty from Sexton which put the home side nine points in the clear with only eight minutes remaining. However, the All Black encounter a year previous was still itched in the minds of many. Surely this Ireland team who since that match have won the Six Nations title could see this one out, couldn’t they?
The answer was yes. Ireland put the game to bed with a memorable try. Again, possession was coughed up by the Boks – a simple knock on, le Roux this time the culprit. From the ensuing scrum, Ireland went left. Sexton saw a ray of light in the defence as substitute scrum half Cobus Reinarch, with his handful of caps, showed the outhalf far too much room and the Lions pivot stepped back inside and gained huge ground. He was hauled down by the covering defence but Ireland were on the front foot and the damage had been done. Instead of continuing the attack down the left side where the Springbok’s were now desperately trying to cover, Conor Murray turned and chipped the ball over everyone to the right hand side in what was very French esq in its flair. Although Bryan Habana tried desperately in vein to back track and cover his wing the damage was done and Tommy Bowe had the pace to gather the ball and dot down. The killer blow was dealt. Madigan kicked another goal a few minutes from time before South African substitute JP Pietersen scored a consolation try after a nice break from le Roux in the last play of the game.
Contender for try of the season? Tommy Bowe’s try sealed the game in style
Not many saw the game end the way it did. As 29-15 winners it wasn’t just the result that was so pleasing but the manner in which they won that is the greatest positive from the game. Ireland found a way to win, they adapted their game and their tactics were astute to say the least. On top of this Ireland can now positively say they have a squad and not just a team. With the way the modern game is, the ability of a team to have as wide a squad as possible is paramount. When one considers Ireland were missing the likes of Cian Healy, Rory Best, Sean O’Brien and Chris Henry in the pack alone, the future is certainly bright. On top of this the ‘new era’ centre pairing was hugely successful and a gamble well taken from Joe Schmidt. South Africa on the other hand were far from their best that saw them end the All Blacks record unbeaten run only a month ago. They missed Pienaar desperately as Hougaard and Pollard struggled to find their rhythm. Poor handling errors and a high penalty count also cost them dearly.
Huge respect. Paul O’Connell and Victor Matfield after the game
Turning Point: South Africa were possibly a bit hard done by the sin binning of Strauss but if you do what he did you leave yourself open to ten minutes in the naughty boy chair. It couldn’t of come at a worse point for the Boks and really took the wind out of their sails.
Man of the Match: There were many that put in stellar performances for Ireland. Paul O’Connell was pivotal in Ireland’s win and underlined his credentials as one of the best in the game. Rhys Ruddock did remarkably well given the little time he had to go from the bench straight into the cauldron like match. Conor Murray too put his hand up in another performance that must make him within the top two scrum half’s in the world right now. But it was Jonathan Sexton that was the difference. His kicking was immaculate as he struck six from six from the tee. On top of this he regularly pinned the Boks back with inch perfect kicks from hand and played a crucial role in the lead up to Bowe’s try.
Man of the Match: Jonathan Sexton
The Score Card:
Ireland: Try – Ruddock, Bowe. Conversions – Sexton (2). Penalties – Sexton (4), Madigan
South Africa: Try – Coetzee, Pieterson. Conversion – Pollard. Penalties – Pollard. Yellow Card – Adrian Strauss
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip 7 Rhys Ruddock, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Dave Kilkoyne, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Mike McCarthy, 20 Tommy O’Donnell, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Tebo Mohoje, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Bakkies Botha, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 JP Pietersen.
Date: Saturday, November 8
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: JP Doyle (England), Alexandre Ruiz (France)
TMO: Jim Yuille (Scotland)