Friday 20 January 2017

Neil Francis: Defiance, invention and an incredible performance sees Joe's men grab greatest-ever win on travels

Published 12/06/2016 | 16:00

Ireland players, from left, Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray and Keith Earls celebrate after the first test
Ireland players, from left, Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray and Keith Earls celebrate after the first test
Luke Marshall in action against Damian de Allende in Cape Town yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This tiny island has an uncanny sense of when to outperform. Ireland gave a truly astonishing performance yesterday in Cape Town to seal their greatest ever victory on foreign soil.

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There was no sense of what was to come as the South Africans stole the pre-match preliminaries. Joe Schmidt had a plan, but there was no mission statement issued because, for many, this was 'mission impossible'. Once the match started you could feel the sense of 'mission', as the Irish began to control the game and played with missionary zeal throughout.

Earlier in the day, England provided a sorbet to cleanse the palate. Our under-20s added to what became a remarkable day, but there is no question that the performance of the day came from Ireland in Cape Town.

Once CJ Stander was sent from the field after 20 minutes, Ireland collectively took responsibility for the moment and played with unwavering confidence. There were two areas which won them the game. You could not call their performance without the ball as merely defence - defiance is the word we are looking for, and if one moment encapsulated it, it came in the last but one minute of this remarkable match.

Duane Vermeulen had a mixed performance throughout. I don't think I have ever seen a rugby player with such physical depth and a striking musculature. He carried without a huge amount of intelligence - and once big, strong men who try and physically bully their opponents are stopped, then their value on the pitch lessens. Paddy Jackson, in possibly the moment of the match, stripped the ball from a man who was practically twice his size. It gave you a small insight into where Ireland's mindset was at.

This match, as indeed Ireland's performance in Auckland five years ago when Jamie Heaslip saw an early red, could have gone down that exact road of a 60-point thrashing. However, this Springbok team are a pale imitation of some of their better sides, and mentally this is what they thought would happen.

Ireland players celebrate at the final whistle
Ireland players celebrate at the final whistle

They lost their sense of fear, because mentally the match would now be in the bag. We too, as commentators or mere spectators, would have spent Saturday evening and all of Sunday talking about whether it was or wasn't a yellow or red card. Stander's hip/butt-cheek connected with Pat Lambie's cheek and the South African pivot was knocked out cold. It was a significant moment in the match and I suppose the terms 'reckless endangerment' and 'duty of care' surface once again, even though there was no real intent. It was a big call and I'm not sure whether it was fully justified.

The effect it had was that it galvanised the Irish, who were in control at that stage, and it had the further effect of the Springboks mentally throttling back - knowing that, physically, Ireland with 14 men, 13 at one stage, just would not be able to continue tackling the way they had. On such rocks do ships of confidence perish.

Elton Jantjes is a pretty decent player in Super Rugby but he is a long way short of the class of Pat Lambie or Handre Pollard, and he just could not give the box control or direction. His hands are good but he has no guile or game management.

Once again in these Joe Schmidt specials, performances are maximised and nobody plays badly. How does he manage to do this? What is it that he does to motivate every player to play as close to their best within the team dynamic? The provincial quotas changed and, for the first time in a very long time, there was not one Leinster player in the Ireland back-line. Injuries are one thing, but the complexion of Ireland's back-line yesterday was a reflection of a changing pattern in this country.

Ireland captain Rory Best, left, and head coach Joe Schmidt celebrate
Ireland captain Rory Best, left, and head coach Joe Schmidt celebrate

Special mention must be made of the six Ulster starters. It is true that Iain Henderson is fresh after his long outage since the World Cup, but, wow, what a performance. That lean and rangy physique posted half-a-dozen astonishing plays.

The South Africans think Etzebeth and De Jager are as good as there are, but Henderson simply outplayed them and, in a match which was won on turnovers at the breakdown, Henderson produced three or four key plays in this regard at critical moments. The mark of a champion, he ripped brilliantly in close contact, carried an extra yard further than most players can even aspire to and tackled with vigorous enthusiasm. His replacement carried on his productivity with a sensational cameo in the last 15.

Luke Marshall, the forgotten man, gave a performance of such intelligence that it is hard to realise that Ireland have completely changed their midfield thinking. Henderson playing on the outside channels would not have made any sense, mainly because he is a converted fullback.

Marshall kicked brilliantly throughout - whether this was pre-planned or Schmidt had worked on it for the months coming up, it was an integral part of the win. No more so than his beautifully crafted grubber through for Jared Payne's and Ireland's first try. Marshall's defensive performance was first-class, as he had to deal with every number of Springbok forwards coming down either his or Paddy Jackson's channel.

Just as in the England game earlier, Ireland's superior line speed and a change from drift to blitz yielded spectacular dividends in the engagements, and the Boks lost an awful lot of the collisions they would simply expect to win - because they are bigger men and they were playing at home.

Jackson gave a wonderfully mature performance and that drop goal with Henshaw off the park in the 36th minute smacked of just doing the right thing at the right time. Ireland won that sector of the game with only 13 men on the pitch. Jackson's kicking performance was pretty good and can get better - and if himself and Murray kick just a little bit tighter, Ireland's aerial game will prosper. The South Africans won a little bit too much of the ball that was put up to them too easily.

Conor Murray kicks through as he is tackled by Duane Vermeulen. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray kicks through as he is tackled by Duane Vermeulen. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Best and Trimble led the way in terms of endeavour as Ireland gave a performance of rehearsed competence, led from the front by Best.

Ireland's psychological resilience and their resolve to do something wonderful right in the middle of our soccer brethren's big moment will transfix the nation. Gatecrashers in South Africa and gatecrashers during the Euros. If the soccer team can produce a performance like that tomorrow they will win easily.

An incredible performance.

11 June 2016; Devin Toner of Ireland celebrates after the 1st test of the Castle Lager Incoming series between South Africa and Ireland at the DHL Newlands Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
11 June 2016; Devin Toner of Ireland celebrates after the 1st test of the Castle Lager Incoming series between South Africa and Ireland at the DHL Newlands Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

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