Tuesday 21 January 2020

Tony Ward: We must rediscover art of winning ugly for crunch Argentina clash

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

When the make-up of the 2012 November series was announced way back when, I remember grimacing at the prospect of South Africa followed by Argentina just a fortnight later. With due respect to one long-established and the other fast-developing rugby nation, neither would elicit excitement, despite the brute strength and technical efficiency of their forward play.

That is not intended criticism, just a statement of fact.

The visitors' success contained everything that is predictable about the Boks, regardless of the circuitous route it took Jean de Villiers and his monstrous troops to get there.

Indeed, this much-changed, under-charged Irish line-up deserves due credit, certainly for the first-half effort, for making it as difficult as they did for South Africa.


The less said about the second half the better, when, for all the heroic huffing and puffing, we were suffocated into submission by a far superior South African force.

It wasn't pretty, nor was it ever going to be, although the unfamiliar look to Declan Kidney's selection meant we turned up overloaded with hope.

On an individual level there were substantial performances from Richardt Strauss, Mike McCarthy and Simon Zebo, while the first-half objective of freeing up quick ball, thereby increasing the tempo, was sporadically achieved.

The Springboks were poor in that period, not because they were tired or uninterested (Test rugby doesn't work like that), but because Ireland closed down space, were quick and unified in line defence and pressurised the opposition into handling errors and the concession of penalties.

With Jonny Sexton landing four penalty kicks from six as opposed to Patrick Lambie's solitary success in response, we were well worth that nine-point lead at the break.

The last 10 minutes before the break and first 10 after the resumption were key to Ireland's defeat. Where we failed to capitalise on JP Pietersen's time (eight and a half minutes to be precise) in the sin-bin, the Boks turned the screw in Jamie Heaslip's 10-minute absence, registering 10 unanswered points to take a 13-12 lead by the 52nd minute.

It wasn't by any means game over, but you sensed the difficulty, even at that early stage, of working our way back. So it came to pass, with the home challenge strangulated as this relatively inexperienced South African pack controlled the pace and held the previously energetic Irish eight in a vice-like grip.

It was the Boks doing what the Boks do best. Bread and butter stuff based on securing primary possession, eking out the hard yards, before kicking into opposition territory or else setting de Villiers up the middle to establish field position -- a role the former Munster player performs exceedingly well.

His second-half contribution, allied to Willem Alberts' imposing presence as tackler and poacher at the breakdown, represented the biggest individual contributions, although Ruan Pienaar was again the epitome of pragmatic sense.

Quite where we go from here I'm not so sure. On the back of this latest defeat the approaching Puma juggernaut has assumed an increased significance.

Irrespective of next week's result against Fiji (and on the evidence from the Pacific Islanders' 54-12 defeat at Twickenham, it should prove a relatively comfortable win in Limerick), the meeting with Argentina is massive for both coach and players.

Losing, just like winning, becomes a mindset which seeps into the squad psyche -- and right now we are up to our neck in defeats. The Pumas face a much more searching examination in France in the interim, but they will be coming to Dublin for a Test they are hell bent on winning.

It has all the makings of another paint-dryer, a game when winning ugly in our current rut could assume a beauty like never before.

Just how sad is that?

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