Monday 21 October 2019

Outhalf rises to occasion in gritty triumph

Ireland 15
South Africa 10

South Africa's Danie Roussouw gets to grips with Jamie Heaslip
South Africa's Danie Roussouw gets to grips with Jamie Heaslip

'Last play, scrum green ball.' And with those words from referee Nigel Owens the world champions steeled themselves for one more effort in a season that has taken them from the first Test against the Lions on a sunny June day in King's Park to a fog-bound Croke Park at the tail end of November.

They scrummed and went left and then rucked and came right and when they couldn't legally retain the ball after another big hit from Brian O'Driscoll -- this time it was finally over. A second defeat in their-three Test tour tears the backside out of it for them -- never mind the two midweek setbacks -- and for their hosts it brings the curtain down on a uniquely successful year.

Never before have Ireland got through such a busy 12 months undefeated, with 11 games stretching back to the win over Argentina last November.

For much of this game it was hard to see at all, and harder still to see a way for the home side to win it. But the depth of resolve in this Ireland side is massive: against the Wallabies a fortnight ago they went into the final straight trying to salvage a draw and this time it was about hanging on to win. Both times they were successful and regardless of what their opponents were doing that kind of thing does wonders for your confidence.

The Springboks will wonder about the slightly surreal nature of it all, finishing their season in a fog where 74,950 paying spectators were flitting between the pitch and the big screen for information, losing 15 points from a missed drop-goal and four penalties, and then hearing the clown on the public address telling them that Bakkies Botha was coming on to save them when he was sitting high in the stand in his civvies.

Indeed when Botha withdrew yesterday morning the odds shortened on Ireland recording their third straight home win over the Boks. Factor in the fatigue, and the absence of the most fearsome enforcer in world rugby and you could only see Ireland coming home first. And then the Boks went back to basics one more time.

For them that means kicking the ball first and smashing their opponents second, and so good were they at both that Ireland were hanging on for an hour. Perhaps it was the fatigue that kicked in at that point, or maybe it was the realisation in the Irish ranks that if they could shift up a gear then they could get out of this alive.

Hard to do that though if you're relying on scrum ball. And not easy either if the line-out maul is your chosen mode of progress and it's not taking you anywhere fast.

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The best example of that came at the end of the first half when Ireland had organised a promising maul only to see it expertly killed. Before you knew it, O'Driscoll was dropping for goal from an unlikely position with a likely result.

He didn't have a lot of options open to him and that's the point: if Ireland weren't battling so hard to get to the physical pitch of the game they would have had the structure and confidence to run through a couple of phases until something better presented itself.

But everything was a battle for them. From the first scrum they were horsed out of it and had there been more scrums this could have killed the contest stone dead.

So too would it have gone south had Morne Steyn done what he normally does without any great effort: putting the ball over the black spot. He fluffed a handy enough drop-goal in the first few minutes however on what was a menacing Springbok approach, and then missed another two just after O'Driscoll's effort when Ireland managed to concede two penalties in as many minutes at the tail end of the half.

Had he nailed them his team would have gone in 16-6 in front. Instead they had to rely on 10-6, with Ireland's points having come from Jonathan Sexton. And how well he did. He finished with five out of seven shots on goal but more importantly he looked happy to be starting against the world champions. His second shot, on 29 minutes, came after he had ridden a heavy challenge in front of the Cusack Stand and retained the ball, and this would simply not have happened with his predecessor.

If Peter de Villiers was asking his players at half-time for one more giant effort, and to keep doing what they were doing, Declan Kidney must have been reminding his lot that it was rude to be making so many mistakes when the Boks were leaving points behind them.

But they continued into the third quarter with Keith Earls spilling out wide. Twice earlier Tomas O'Leary had kicked ball away in the Boks' 22. Could they go on like this, relying on the excellence of man of the match Rob Kearney, and the incredible drive of Jamie Heaslip, for consistency?

Something had to change and it came soon after Steyn's third penalty miss for another scum penalty. Sexton slotted a fine kick after a high tackle on O'Driscoll and incredibly it was a one-point game. Then, on 51 minutes, he hit another after Andries Bekker had stuck a knee into David Wallace's back when the flanker was on the ground.

At 12-10 then we had the different scenario of Ireland trying to play conservative and pin the Boks down except that Heinrich Brüssow started to do more damage at the breakdown, and keeping the ball was getting harder instead of easier.

There were close calls on the South Africa line too, but not once did you feel that Ireland had enough to either smash their way over, or carve their way through. Instead it was Sexton who would provide the points, putting them out to 15-10 on 66 minutes and then missing an insurance shot on 75, soon after replacement Ruan Pienaar had hit the post with a penalty.

That minor blot on his copybook would give added weight to the referee's announcement that there was time for one last play and it would be a Bok scrum. No matter, Ireland defended it well and the most successful 12 months in Irish history had been secured.

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