Friday 14 December 2018

5 things we learned about Ireland

Ireland's Bundee Aki. Photo: PA
Ireland's Bundee Aki. Photo: PA

Des Berry

1 Aki makes his mark

When the match announcer cleared his throat 20 minutes before kick-off and belted out the Ireland team to a half-empty stadium, the loudest and most sustained cheers were reserved for Sean O'Brien, making his 50th cap, and Bundee Aki, making his first.

The Aucklander-turned-Irelander had been the innocent pawn in a 'bigger picture' and old debate all week. It was time to show everyone what he was all about, putting his shoulder into Coenie Oosthuizen and driving the prop backwards and out of the game with an unfortunate knee injury in the first minute.

Aki is here to stay.

2 Our new enforcer

No less a figure than Brian O'Driscoll spoke in the lead-up about how Ireland are missing that Nathan Hynes-type old-school enforcer in the second row.

The moment Eben Etzebeth let everyone in South Africa know he was for real was when he obliterated Sharks hardman Bismarck du Plessis in a Super Rugby match in 2012.

This Test match was 23 minutes old when Iain Henderson trampled all over the top of Etzebeth, and the Ulster second-row met him on the gain line all evening to let him know there was a new bad man in this old town.

3 Grinding style

The softening-up process is not about to get any easier for Ireland's big carriers, especially CJ Stander.

The direct style employed by coach Joe Schmidt to keep defences narrow and honest through the work of Cian Healy, Henderson, O'Brien and Stander demands total commitment.

It is a grinding process in which Jonathan Sexton was able to build a lead in blocks of three rather than seven for 9-0 in the 20th minute.

There will be no dramatic departure from Ireland's way forward.

4 These wings have a prayer

The spectators arrived talking all about the form, formidable presence and natural finishing of Jacob Stockdale.

They left lauding the high-flying, ball-chasing opportunism of Andrew Conway and the Ulsterman's late show.

Conway had to leave Leinster to make his way in the game. He did it by turning his weaknesses, such as his tackle technique and accuracy in the air, into international-standard strengths. Stockdale's huge second-half hit on Dillyn Leyds grew his confidence to such an extent that he started and finished the last try.

5 Sexton knows only one way

What can you do about Jonathan Sexton? He just won't change for any reason, least of all his self-preservation. The 32-year-old is the most precious jewel in Schmidt's treasure chest of talent.

The list of injuries and the critical importance of getting him to the 2019 World Cup in one piece may have led Schmidt to assign Aki as a minder of sorts at his shoulder.

But Sexton simply stood every big man up in the tackle and took his chances. No fear. No change there then.

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