Tuesday 20 August 2019

Tony Ward: Aki now a fully-fledged Ireland international as Conway and Stockdale surge to front of well-stocked wing queue


Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Reuters
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Reuters
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In days of yore, Ireland would hit the southern hemisphere big three with everything they had to offer for the best part of an hour in Dublin before being blown to smithereens in the final quarter.

Those days are long gone: Ireland now last the pace as well as anyone. How strange, therefore, to witness a team in green disintegrate before our very eyes. (By the way, I hate the new kit design. Who comes up with these ideas?)

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile

The Springboks came to take on the 'European All Blacks' according to head coach Allister Coetzee, who called Saturday's clash the defining game in their season.

I am no more going to fall into the trap of triumphalism than Joe Schmidt, who was typically diplomatic and humble in victory, describing the winning margin as "flattering".

Fate and form can be fickle. Who knows what lies around the corner at this level? Think Scotland at Murrayfield eight months ago.

That said, I have never seen a more insipid or rudderless South African performance.

Yes, we played well, but against a developing Irish side still a very long way from All Black standards, this was a dismal Springbok performance.

Whether it is the quota system or the number of South Africans plying their trade abroad (and we have one of their very best in our back-row), South African rugby has lost its way.

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On Saturday the Boks dominated possession (54pc) and territory (55pc) yet we won 38-3, outscoring them four tries to none. According to the official statistics we made seven line-breaks to their one, although for the life of me I can't recall theirs.

Maybe it is because I am of a different era but I still have a tendency to view South Africa as I do New Zealand.

This game (perhaps even more than the 'Boks' 57-point drubbing by the All Blacks in September) brought home the reality as I watched the visitors labour from side to side.

Of course, the Irish defence was superb, and Andy Farrell can once again take a bow, but isn't it a sad indictment of rugby in the Rainbow Republic in 2017 that Ireland - recording their seventh win in 26 attempts (six in the last nine) - controlled this game so convincingly on either side of the ball?

Schmidt, Farrell, Simon Easterby, Richie Murphy, Greg Feek and everyone else involved have every right to lose the run of themselves behind closed doors.

As someone brought up in awe of South African rugby - and not disappointed in playing terms by my only on-field experience there - I found this Springbok display depressing in the extreme.

But let it not detract one iota from yet another superb performance from Ireland under Schmidt's watch.

No World Cup semi-final yet, no Grand Slam, just a winning performance of which we as a relatively small rugby nation should be immensely proud.

Johnny Sexton picked up the man of the match award but there were so many decked in grey (ouch) competing for that gong, and in every sector of the side, from No 1 Cian Healy to No 15 Rob Kearney.

And what about the cameo off the bench from debutant Darren Sweetnam?

The groundwork had been laid in the opening hour but the impact off the Irish bench in that final quarter was a tribute to the depth of this growing squad.

The cohesion and line-speed in defence, the quality of the drift, and the competitiveness at the breakdown made life extremely uncomfortable for the tourists.

And, while I deplore the modern trend of backs rushing in to congratulate forwards for doing what they're meant to do at scrum time, indelibly etched is the memory from Saturday of Ireland players being slapped on the back by team-mates from all over the field for forcing a penalty or turnover at the breakdown.

So many Irish players got down and dirty in this impressive performance.

Bundee Aki's presence was there for all to see with his personality stamped over every justifiable high-five from first whistle to last. He is now like CJ, Rob Herring, Jared Payne and Richardt Strauss - a fully-fledged Ireland rugby international. The qualification system still reeks, but welcome on board Bundee.

Were it not for the former headmaster and ultimate perfectionist in control, there might be concern over complacency, but this is Schmidt and Ireland 2017.

The next challenge is in balancing the demands of the Fiji game against those of the Argentina clash.

I'd expect the team to face the Fijians to be largely made up of players who toured the USA and Japan in the summer when the Lions - effectively the senior team - were in New Zealand.

Just to put the depth of the squad in perspective, remember that Luke Fitzgerald has retired prematurely, Simon Zebo announced his move abroad and Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy, Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden were all out of the frame for one reason or another.

Along come Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale (the perfect fit on the left), and how after Saturday's performance could you possibly leave either player out of the final game against the Pumas?

And then there's Sweetnam, Jordan Larmour, Adam Byrne and the rest coming through.

It is difficult not to feel for South African rugby but has there ever been a more exciting or more optimistic time for the game in this country?

If we get the right result against the odds on Wednesday in London, the dream at least for now will be complete.

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