Brent Pope: Ireland must pile pressure on leaderless Springboks
For many it has been a long and somewhat spasmodic rugby season. Some Irish players have now been involved with rugby full-time for almost an entire year.
A season that saw high expectation but disappointment in the World Cup, Six Nations Championship and European Cups but also a year that ended on a high with an upsurge in rugby fever in the West of Ireland and a historical first ever win by Ireland in South Africa. Immortality beckons for the two Irish teams on show this weekend, and in many ways shows just how far the game has come in recent years.
Rugby, despite falling well behind GAA and football in terms of playing numbers, continues to box well above its weight on a world stage. The Irish Under 20s are in a World Cup final against England tomorrow, having beaten Wales, Georgia, New Zealand and Argentina along the way.
When their pool group was originally announced few gave them a chance of progressing, but what they have achieved is immense. New Zealand has almost proved unbeatable at this level for decades.
The Irish team, so maturely led by stars of the future like captain James Ryan, the whole front row, big No 8 Max Deegan and backs like Jacob Stockdale and Johnny McPhillips, have played the games almost perfectly to date.
They have dominated up front in wet conditions, then midweek on harder grounds they unleashed an exciting attacking game to trounce Argentina.
England, with their vast playing and financial resources, look favourites, but this Irish team believes they can win, and all tournament they have just concentrated on the next game. In the main event the Irish senior team can also make history by claiming what very few rugby nations do: a series win in South Africa.
The issue will be how the Irish have used last week’s defeat. Have they managed to park it and learn from it or has it been gnawing away at them? To me this is the key.
You need to learn as much from defeat as you do in victory, and the great sporting teams manage to do that.
Let’s look at the positives from last week’s loss in Ellis Park. Firstly, Ireland had almost complete dominance in the scrum, something that the South Africans cannot fix in one week. Ireland’s backrow combinations have a more balanced look.
South Africa’s backrow is all about physicality and the carry, they are not about the forage game, and Ireland must use their extra mobility to their advantage and move the bigger South African pack around the field at speed.
Ireland has more experience and game management experience in the 8, 9 and 10 positions, probably the most crucial decision-making area on the field.
Much has been said of young South African scrumhalf Faf de Klerk. He has played the two games to date, but I just don’t see it.
To me, De Klerk grabs his outside backs’ space by running across field. He is also not a direct snipe runner, meaning that his threat is in his speed out wide.
He is also laboured at getting the ball away from rucks and mauls and takes far too many steps in releasing his pass, making the whole backline easier to defend against.
Ireland will know if they can just slow down the South African ball at ruck time and continue to use the rip and choke tackles that have worked so well, they can deny South Africa any go-forward ball.
So where are the main dangers for Ireland? The main danger has not changed in decades. South Africa’s brute physicality paved the way for their second-half victory last weekend, plus some inspired changes off the bench.
Coetzee’s changes - Warren Whitely, Ruan Combrinck, Franco Mostert and Julian Redelinghuys - allowed South Africa to commit more numbers to the gain line collision and with Redelinghuys to the fore, allowed South Africa to get the space that had been non-existent until then.
South Africa used their massive second rows to attack Ireland’s 9-10 channel, and Paddy Jackson was asked to tackle too many big men.
Ireland’s loose forwards must get around the corner and plug that gap this weekend. South Africa will get better the longer they play together and combinations start to gel.
But all series they have been plagued by a poor scrum, ill-discipline, poor handling and poor combination play. Most significant for me is their inexperience in game leadership.
New captain Adrian Strauss is a big ball-carrier, but he seems lost when it comes to making clear decisions on the field, almost asking every other player what they think first.
The pressure is again obviously on the home side and Ireland can either make that work for them or against them.
The in-form Jared Payne is a serious loss as is Robbie Henshaw, who draws more than one defender to him every time he has the ball.
But in Payne’s replacement, Connacht’s Tiernan O’Halloran, Ireland have a counter attacker that South Africa won’t know much about.
Ireland can use this to their advantage too.
Can Ireland win? Absolutely, they have dominated for three out of four halves of rugby to date.
But they must believe they can operate out of their comfort zone and shut games down when they need to.
I wish both teams the very best of Irish luck, and what a weekend it could be – world champions at junior level, a first ever series win against the South Africans and the Irish football team to beat hosts France on Sunday.
I’m feeling greener by the day.