Saturday 24 March 2018

Neil Francis: Sobering skill shortage cost us shot at history in South Africa

Ireland had the perfect platform to claim series victory but ultimately weren't good enough

Luke Marshall scores Ireland’s only try of the game against South Africa yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran
Luke Marshall scores Ireland’s only try of the game against South Africa yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Early on Saturday morning we watched England take a whitewash in their series against Australia. What a difference a coach makes. Stuart Lancaster had every player except Maro Itoje available to him.

Maybe chalk up the series win and Grand Slam to Itoje. A series win is a series win, 2-1 or 3-0, it makes no odds to you or me. For Eddie Jones, though, it was 3-0 or nothing. If you have a good coach and even a mediocre team you are in business at international level. Ireland had a 2-1 series win in their grasp and failed due to their skill-set which was 5pc off where it needed to be. Joe Schmidt had done everything possible; his masterplan took Ireland painfully short of where they needed to be. Alas, the scoreboard is king in Test rugby.

Jones pushed his side to a 3-0 series win. Schmidt led his side to the possibility of a 2-1 series win. You could not fault the Kiwi, he did everything right and deep in the inner recesses of his mind this one will gnaw at him. This Springbok side were vulnerable and they were hanging on desperately in the last seven minutes yesterday; a little bit of imagination and a touch more guile and Ireland were home.

The opportunity of a lifetime has got to be taken within the lifetime of that opportunity. Ireland will get stronger over the next three or four years and South Africa, due to a whole host of factors, will get weaker, but we might not play them again for another 10 seasons.

There can be no taking the positives or learning from mistakes from this one. It was there and the opportunity was not taken.

All the way through the lead-up to this match I was certain that Ireland would be a lot more than just competitive. Some suggested a meek capitulation or a bloodless surrender; I was certain that was never on the cards.

Despite the length of the season there was no weakness in character or in attitude of this Irish side and they gave a performance of unconditional commitment as they kept themselves in the game at all times. Ultimately, they were not big enough to out-muscle nor smart enough to out-think a limited South African side.

There is no question that they would have been set fair for a better result in the series if they had travelled with the full complement - whether it was their injured players on tour or some of their stars who remained at home on their couch.

They had a good grasp of what was required from Schmidt's game-plan and turned in a performance far greater than that of mere bloody-minded functionality. Ireland were skilful enough and they held on to the ball and some of what they did troubled South Africa. But a lot of what they did played into their hands and that is why this team, even though compelling, will fail against the bigger, stronger southern hemisphere sides. Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and it took them to the edge of the stage but not on to it. They needed one or two players - a passer and a forceful ball carrier - to convert those close-in, red-ball situations.

South Africa, despite what they might think, were competent on the gain-line but it wasn't exactly a candle-snuff defensive effort and Ireland found gaps. But once again when an offload and the possibility from a supporting player looking for the offload would make the difference, it just isn't in the mind-set or in the game-plan and Ireland have to work tremendously hard when they look to score, particularly from midfield.

Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall were reasonably good yesterday and maybe the unfamiliarity with the rest of the players in the backline didn't help but they were just a tiny bit lacking in the quality and subtlety to unpick a naïve South African midfield from first phase. For all his offensive capability, Damian de Allende is unproven when it comes to who to tackle and when to tackle them. Lionel Mapoe just isn't international class. Ireland should have taken advantage of that.

Ireland showed great fidelity and patience in the last seven minutes and they could smell blood. This is where Schmidt's plan almost came to fruition: the impetus of their bench made a huge difference and Ultan Dillane, Rhys Ruddock and especially Sean Cronin caused havoc in the final plays. With 24 phases played sometimes it's more difficult to keep attacking than defending and the questions that were being asked of the South Africans were of the ABC variety. If Ireland's passing had been a tad sharper, a little quicker and more direct they would have put the South Africans under a huge amount of pressure. This is what the All Blacks do and when the heat comes on, even though the limbs are tired, the passing is direct and to the man and that is why they score an awful lot of tries in the last 10 minutes.

Bottom line: skills were good but not good enough.

Again, when Ireland got their runners just short of the South African line the Boks were sweating gravy and one spark of imagination, an inside pass or an offload would have been the difference. Everything else about Ireland's performance gave them the platform to win this game. They had 68pc possession and 73pc territory - stupendous statistics; that was part of the plan, to keep the ball, and that was exactly what Ireland did.

Ireland also put in a monumental defensive performance, with only four tackles missed all game. But when you are looking at the ashes of defeat, despite all the ball Ireland had, it was the 15 turnovers that killed them.

Ireland had been masters in this area in the previous two Tests but South Africa had learned these lessons and Francois Louw and Siya Kolisi were far better over the ball yesterday and that had a significant bearing.

If Test rugby is a game of inches then South Africa had just about enough to spare. They were untouchable on their own ball at the lineout and the 5ft 8ins Faf de Klerk picked off, by the skin of his teeth, a try-scoring pass to Andrew Trimble on the right-hand side when the game was up for grabs; the little man must have been two feet off the ground trying to make the intercept.

On half-a-dozen occasions Ireland had worked a lofted pass over to their wingers right on the touchline to make good profit but in this case, agonisingly, it was inches too low.

This is a poor South African side that will get thumped in the Rugby Championship and will have serious problems even with Argentina. A painful defeat for Ireland, one where there are simply no silver linings; you either win the Test series or you go home empty-handed, there is no middle ground. When you are in a position to win, you gotta win.

P.S. Whoever thought JP Pietersen was the Castle Lager Man of the Match must have had 20 cans of the sponsor's product during the match to make that decision.

P.P.S. Congratulations to Eoin Reddan on a magnificent career.

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