Sunday 15 December 2019

Neil Francis: Fate wings in to give Ireland a shot at something very special

But we need to improve by 20 per cent and contain Springboks' ultra-physical approach

Ireland players stand for the national anthem before the first test in Cape Town last Saturday Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland players stand for the national anthem before the first test in Cape Town last Saturday Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On Sunday, November 24, 2013, fate was enjoying a skinny latte on his chaise longue when he remembered he had an appointment in the Aviva.

This capricious soul would never break an arrangement like this and he duly and arbitrarily decreed that New Zealand would beat Ireland on that day by 24-22. Fate has no affection or affectation and he left the stadium with no compunction or sting of remorse. Ireland that day were to lose - that is what fate had decided.

Sir Nigel from the Barony of Mynyddcerrig had charge of the game and, as a champion of the way rugby should be played, he could be forgiven for deciding that Ireland should not be allowed to finish off the match the way they were attempting to do.

There was less than two minutes on the clock as Ireland got their pods going left and right of the breakdown. Take the contact - no need to get to the gain line - protect the ball, run down the clock and close out the game. Ireland had got to their seventh recycle and they were going precisely nowhere except onto the history books when the Duke pinged Jack McGrath for going off his feet.

He had warned (audibly) Declan Fitzpatrick not to do it on the fourth recycle of the series and the Welshman stuck his hand in the air.

New Zealand, electrified by the reprieve, went 12 phases and dazzled as they played rugby with calculated risk but no mistakes. They have this amazing habit of getting the ball into the hands of their most dangerous players. Liam Messam and Kieran Read on the borders of the chalk dust on both sides of the pitch and the coup de grace as Dane Coles put Ryan Crotty over in the corner.


Fate permitted himself a casual snigger and went back to finish off that half bottle of pinot noir - almost as cheeky a bouquet as his performance that afternoon.

Last Saturday, we can't be sure whether or not fate turned up at Newlands. Never one to ruminate on his actions or examine his conscience, there was still a sting in the tail in that match that suggested he was lurking somewhere.

When JP Pietersen knocked the ball on at the side of the pitch there was 90 seconds left on the clock. The scrum was 15 metres from Ireland's '22'. South Africa needed to get it back and score a converted try. Nothing is easy in international rugby, especially when most of the defending team are out on their feet. In terms of a close-out just keep the ball and keep your mind focused.

Ireland got the ball away from the scrum, Luke Marshall took it up first, the excellent Ultan Dillane carried on from the next recycle and eventually Rhys Ruddock, going right, ended up on the floor.

In the last seconds in a game of such magnitude with the glittering prize of the scalp of the Springboks on home soil, it is incredibly difficult to keep it all together in the intoxicating mix of panic and the oppressive will of a superpower team who want the ball back.

You and I could see that the television clock said 79 minutes and 14 seconds were played when Conor Murray fished the ball out of the ruck from Ruddock's recycle.

There were at least two, maybe three recycles needed to run the clock down 45 seconds to close it out to red time. What was Murray thinking as he prepared to gather the ball? We don't know, but at that stage in the helter-skelter of a Test match instinct replaces thinking.

Murray had five or six seconds to decide what to do. Mathieu Raynal is an inexperienced Test referee who had an undistinguished 79 minutes so far. Would Murray's mind be programmed to think, 'Hmm, if we go three phases here, Raynal may get uppity and ping us for going off our feet or sealing off the ball?'

Ever since Munster chewed the clock up in that last 10 minutes of the Heineken Cup against Toulouse, World Rugby (IRB) have railed against that sort of close-out performance. Train-track rugby - hold the ball - go nowhere - kill the clock - end the game. There was to be no more of that crap and quite a number of teams now get pinged trying to kill the game in that fashion - it's not a coincidence.

Murray box-kicked and he box-kicked badly. The Munster scrum-half had a sensational game but in the moment, by kicking it away so cheaply he nearly lost it. The box-kick was not about any deliberation of whether Raynal would follow Owens' thinking - it was purely down to passive conditioned thinking. I can say it now from the comfort and safety of the couch, but what sort of a percentage play was that?

Murray gesticulated to Devin Toner, who was running on fumes, to chase his kick. Andrew Trimble from the blind side of the ruck chased it too but neither got within seven/eight metres of Willie le Roux when it nestled safely in his arms.

Game on . . . again!

After Jackson's unlikely and audacious rip of the ball from Duane Vermeulen, South Africa had one last chance off that scrum as the clock went red. South Africa neither had the method nor the conviction to score with a real scoring chance.

Pietersen should hang his head in shame. When he received the ball from Le Roux on the left-hand side of the pitch, he kept the ball in his inside arm on the right. Ireland had been tackling the ball all afternoon. Good finishers keep the ball in the outside arm and use to inside arm to fend off the cover.

Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw could not believe their eyes when Pietersen showed them the ball and tried to fend them off with the ball in his inside arm. Henshaw went low and Payne was precise and sure in the way he attached himself to the hapless Pietersen. The South African winger's running body angles and eye awareness of where the try-line lay was awful.


Pietersen still had the option to spin out of the tackle and roll over with the ball in his outside arm - if he had the ball in his outside arm. Julian Savea, George North, Juan Imhoff - any natural finisher - would have converted the chance. Le Roux should have gone on his own to avoid the touchline.

Jackson came in to make sure that Pietersen didn't roll but his foot was in touch at that stage. Job done!

How did it come to that? A match-winning lead. An easy close-out against a side heavily at odds with themselves.

If the South Africans were expecting an embarrassing video session, it would have been nothing compared to the one Joe Schmidt would have inflicted on his team if they had lost the game - after what the team endured against New Zealand.

Despite the panic in the close-out, it was a remarkable performance. Ireland need to improve about 20 per cent to win this Saturday. They looked comfortable in the first 20 and if they show better control in their kicking game, they will win in Jo'burg. For anyone who has played elite sport at altitude - you will know what a huge factor the lack of oxygen makes. If Ireland go for the full 80 it will be a miracle.

Years ago the Australian hooker Phil Kearns was asked before we played them in Ballymore what he thought Ireland would do. "Oh mate, Ireland are going to put up a bit of a stink."

He understood, quite rightly, that the only chance Ireland had was to get down and dirty. I think South Africa have nothing else to fall back on. Ireland have a really good chance for something special if they are able to confront and contain the Boks' ultra-physical approach.

As for fate - the little bastard was in Newlands up to his tricks again and he will be in Ellis Park. Ireland will have to take him out as well!

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