Wednesday 25 April 2018

Vincent Hogan: Sweetnam cameo sums up glorious display against hapless South Africans

 

11 November 2017; Darren Sweetnam of Ireland during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
11 November 2017; Darren Sweetnam of Ireland during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

For a couple of hours in Dublin on Saturday evening, somewhere high above the rolling Irish thunder, you could all but hear quiet African churchyards groan, generations of old 'Boks spinning in their graves.

This was a car-crash Test match. An act of humiliation repudiating everything history tells us about South Africa's position in the game and Ireland's proximity to it. "A terrible place to be," Francois Louw would concede afterwards, his tone funereal in dressing-room four under the West Stand.

Peter O’Mahony wins a line-out for Ireland during their victory over South Africa. Photo: Sportsfile
Peter O’Mahony wins a line-out for Ireland during their victory over South Africa. Photo: Sportsfile

Just yards away from the Springbok number eight, Darren Sweetnam was lost for words.

Well words other than "incredible" and "surreal", the refuge of a young man suddenly inoculated against any sense that this world we live in might be remotely limiting or conditional. Five years ago, he was a 19-year-old senior county hurler with Cork. The 'find' of a summer that brought them to an All-Ireland semi-final in August.

You don't have to be of that independent republic to understand what it must have felt like for the kid from Dunmanway, making his way in a team managed by Jimmy Barry-Murphy.

He'd been good at pretty much everything in school, playing underage badminton and hockey at international level and making it to Munster U-20 status in rugby despite only taking up the game in his Leaving Cert cycle. But hurling senior for Cork? With GAA royalty to guide him?

Ireland's Darren Sweetnam. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Darren Sweetnam. Photo: Sportsfile

"At the end of that championship, I said to my under-20 coaches, 'Oh I'm going to stick with the hurling!'" he told us, drinking deep his new life as a senior rugby international.

"I was kind of 'Aw, it's a big risk going up to the rugby..."

But one of those coaches, Greig Oliver, opted for a final throw of the dice. "Would you meet me one more time?" he asked. And so Sweetnam and his father Lesley pitched up in Cork's Airport Hotel for what they both assumed would be a formal termination of his young rugby career.

One month later, he'd signed a three-year contract for Munster Academy.

Sweetnam is emblematic of the fresh wind blowing through Irish rugby, a breeze that eventually tipped South Africa upside down on Saturday. The Springbok coach Allister Coetzee spoke with impressive humility and grace after, albeit his observation that "the second try only came in the 71st minute" represented just about the creakiest whisper of defiance imaginable.

Because his team had carried all the control and tactical nuance of a supermarket trolley released down the steepest concrete hill.

The only triumph open to these 'Boks is physical triumph and that was never accessible against an Irish team that simply doesn't get bullied these days. Ireland were better organised, calmer, smarter. A group playing with ruthlessness and clarity.

The 'Boks, by comparison, offered abundant brawn, adrenaline and free-wheeling endorphins, yet played with precious little ingenuity. Their game was a miasma of relentlessly heavy hits, lateral recycling and, early doors at least, incontinent use of the boot. Rugby by numbers almost.

It said something that Ireland didn't require anything exceptional to reach the mid-point an unflattering fourteen points clear of opponents playing with all the finesse and game intelligence of spring bullocks on the charge.

These 'Boks were lumbering and one-dimensional, a wan facsimile of past teams wearing that famous green shirt for whom vast, battering-ram packs at least had the comforting presence of intuitive footballers behind them.

This one had none, not conspicuously at least, their half-backs out-played like callow schoolboys by Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, their midfield and back-three some distance downstream of conspicuous tier one standard.

The disparity in class and organisation gave us a contest then that, towards the end, felt almost implausibly cruel.

Most tellingly, Joe Schmidt's bench served to compound the sense of distance between the sides rather than dilute it. Two of the replacements, Rhys Ruddock and Rob Herring, scored tries, yet all contributed handsomely in contrast to Springbok counterparts who, largely, looked like men arriving into an earthquake zone armed only with lights and gaffer tape.

So those last ten minutes especially, during which Ireland crossed for three tries, exhilarated the home throng.

They spoke of a team now finding the self-expression to play rugby of their choosing. From Sexton's delicious reverse pass in the build-up to Ruddock's brilliantly taken touchdown; to an entirely new Irish front-row demolishing the Springbok scrum, facilitating that maul from which Herring would dive over; to Sweetnam, miraculously, outwitting two 'Boks by the toes of the West Stand, thus instigating the move for Jacob Stockdale's injury-time swan-dive.

"No positives from our side," confirmed Coetzee. "We let ourselves down and our support back home."

Number eight Louw spoke of his team being "put to the sword", of the gulf in evidence resulting in "a pretty awful Test match".

Had the game deposited anger or disbelief in their changing-room?

"Disappointment," he replied flatly. "Not disbelief at all. Belief's very much there!" If so, there was precious little evidence of it from the moment of Bundee Aki's first-minute contact with tighthead Coenie Oosthuizen, forcing the giant Sharks man into early retirement.

That early hit represented a clear statement from the Irish that the biggest slabs of manhood held no fears for them here. If anything, the Springboks' physicality would be reduced to a kind of nostalgia act by the finish, a virtual glimpse of water buffalo running blind.

Just six minutes in, Damian de Allende spurned a 3-1 overlap, spooning a timid kick into Andrew Conway's midriff. And their collective troubles at the breakdown soon had the impressively unfussed Mr O'Keeffe issuing a warning about Irish players being persistently held when a ruck was already over.

Conway did brilliantly to take his 24th-minute try, albeit the Springboks' lack of spatial understanding surely made it feel as if those green shapes he was side-stepping were just rather large potted plants.

By then, the game had already settled into a rhythm that promised nothing for our guests.

Actually, you had to imagine a more meaningful edge to business in the IRFU box over lunch, even if all that piety and vitriol of recent days about World Cup 2023 had, presumably, been replaced by careful, zipped-up politesse between blazers.

There was still half an hour to go when Schmidt began emptying his bench, already comfortable in the belief that nothing coming his team's way would be too quarrelsome.

True, the 'Boks were getting numbers into promising positions, yet Ireland's try-line could have been protected by barbed wire, sandbags and a moat for all the threat being carried.

Recipient

When they did, briefly, glimpse empty space in the 69th minute, Stockdale almost cut Dillyn Leyds in two before he could release to an escaping 'Bok on the tramline. Some time earlier, Aki had been the recipient of high fives and chest bumps, having bundled Jesse Kriel almost into the front seats of the West Stand.

As the game galloped away from South Africa, just about everything that Schmidt holds precious became luminous in what Ireland did. Concentration held firm, energy levels never tapered, standards did not slip. If anything, they became more ruthless.

Yet, when it was put to Sexton afterwards that the performance had been disciplined, he couldn't deny himself a wry grin.

"For the most part" agreed the man of the match. "But I'm sure the boss will find lots to give out to us about!"

So what exactly had we witnessed in the damp chill of Lansdowne?

A stats page in the match programme revealed this to be only Ireland's seventh win in 26 collisions with South Africa. Yet, six of those victories have come from the last 11 Tests. And, as Coetzee reminded us, the 'Boks have not won in Dublin now since 2012.

"That's not because we lack effort," he said with disarming honesty. "We're just getting out-smarted every time."

It was an extraordinary admission from a man whose position now looks doomed once this carousel of November internationals runs its course. And Ireland? Schmidt's culture seems writ large in everything they now do and say.

As Sweetnam was swept up in the personal euphoria of an experience that gave him "goosebumps", someone asked if he now hoped for a start next weekend against Fiji.

And this gem of a young man lost forever to Cork hurling, stalled the giddiness with a smile. "Ah, look, I won't be getting ahead of myself now," he said, lips moving, but the words coming straight from his coach's mouth.

Irish Independent

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