Tuesday 24 October 2017

Monday Breakdown: Ireland vs South Africa - five things we learned

Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Here is what we learned from the stirring victory over the Springboks

Sexton proves he is still the master

Handre Pollard might be billed as the next big thing in world rugby but Johnny Sexton’s masterclass showed that the young pretender has some way to go before becoming the finished product.

It wasn’t just the 16 points that Sexton contributed as well as notching a 100pc record from the tee, but his all around controlling of the game set the platform for what was a ruthlessly clinical performance against a South African side who came into the game high on confidence.

Sexton’s beautiful dummy on Pat Lambie in the build-up to Tommy Bowe’s try summed up a performance that reiterated how special a player he is. His final act was to stroke over a second touchline conversion, much to the adoration of the home crowd.

Attritional defence makes huge statement of intent

Joe Schmidt is undoubtedly the brains behind the operation but the contribution of defensive coach Les Kiss cannot be understated.

Ireland’s defensive display was relentless for the entire 80 minutes as they got through 128 tackles – almost twice as many as the Springboks.

The fitness of the players was crucial but their conditioning allowed them to hit the line with ferocious intensity.

Jack McGrath’s tackle count (17) was phenomenal for any player, let alone a prop, while Rhys Ruddock was just one behind him with 16.

Kiss was insistent that Ireland needed to front up to a “physical” Boks side and the players duly delivered. Schmidt and his backroom team got the game plan spot on but the execution from a team who haven’t played together since June was outstanding.

Ireland’s pool of ‘reserves’ ain’t half-bad

The last-minute withdrawal of Chris Henry could have thrown a spanner in the week’s work but, in what was just his third cap, Rhys Ruddock slotted in seamlessly and played like a seasoned international.

When you consider the lengthy list of injuries that Schmidt has had to deal with as well as the quality of those players, Ireland have proven that their strength in depth allows them to mix it with the best which is timely seven months out from the World Cup.

Cian Healy spoke earlier this week about fearing for his place in the starting XV and with McGrath’s rapid rate of progression, he may well be looking over his shoulder.

“I know that he was our top tackler (17) which for a big man is a lot of tackles to get through. I thought he scrummed well.

“He has big shoes to fill but at the same time he wants to put big feet into them,” Schmidt assessed after the match.

Winning the key individual battles wins games

There were massive individual battles right throughout both sides but Ireland came out on top in every one of them.

Sexton set the tone in his duel with Pollard but when you also consider that Bryan Habana hardly had a sniff while Jamie Heaslip nullified Duane Vermeulen who is widely regarded as the form No 8 in the world. The Boks emptied the bench with Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger adding further power up front, but Ireland continued to repel the wave after wave of attack.

JP Pietersen did cross for a consolation try and, being the perfectionist that he is, Schmidt wasn’t pleased.

“South Africa scored at the precise time the All Blacks did last year. We want to be known as an 85-minute team if that’s what it takes.”

Despite the impressive performance, still room for improvement.

Midfield ‘gamble’ pays off for Irish management

‘In Joe we trust’ was the summation of one supporter as he left the stadium and, in truth, it’s difficult to argue.

A few eyebrows were raised when Schmidt opted to pair the untested Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne together in the centre but not for the first time the Kiwi coach was fully vindicated in his selection.

“There was a quiet confidence within the coaching group, within the team, and with the two lads themselves,” Schmidt said.

As the camera panned to Henshaw during the anthems, the nerves were etched across his face but once he made his first carry, he settled.

Playing in an unfamiliar role at 12, he was caught out on a  couple of occasions which is understandable but Payne was on hand to dig his centre partner out of trouble. An exciting partnership in the making.

Ref Link Review

"From my view, the hands got the defending player first. We go for a knock-on."

Romain Poite's assessment of Marcel Coetzee's forearm on Jamie Heaslip wasn't welcomed by the home crowd.

"Pay attention. Have a look at your players first."

Victor Matfield gets an old-school dressing-down after complaining about Ireland's work at the breakdown.

"Can you come quicker and clear the right number for the lineout please?"

Ireland were in no rush to get to the lineouts as they slowed the game down. Poite eventually had enough and issued a warning to Paul O'Connell.

"Can you just watch the hit and chase in the scrum?"

"Okay, Paul."

Poite and O'Connell continue their conversation late on in the second half as the Ireland captain felt South Africa were infringing at scrum time.

"Nothing really important or dangerous, just a couple of scuffles. Have a word."

After a couple of 'handbags' off the ball, Poite has a quiet word with both captains.

"Eight, that was just reckless. Watch it."

Duane Vermeulen's high tackle on Heaslip avoided a yellow card but he did receive a stern telling-off from Poite.

"He was very late and hit the player in the air. It was the second time so I will sin-bin him."

Adriaan Strauss' yellow card for taking Rob Kearney out in the air was certainly on the harsh side but as Poite explained, he sent him to the sin bin as it was the second time that a South African player had committed the same offence.

"Are you good?"

As Peter O'Mahony lies stricken on the ground gasping for breath after a collision with Conor Murray, Poite checks on his well-being.

"If we contest legally at breakdown they will go off their feet."

O'Connell has been around long enough to know the dark arts of the breakdown and midway through the second half, during a break in play, he issued a rallying call to his team-mates.

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