Tuesday 21 November 2017

Ireland leave it too late

Ireland 21 South Africa 23

Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll combine to halt the charge of Zane Kirchner, in the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: Alan Place
Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll combine to halt the charge of Zane Kirchner, in the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: Alan Place

We were told that the Springboks had been less than enamoured, since their late arrival in Dublin, with the theme locally that all Ireland had to do was turn up to win.

That the Boks were so hobbled by injury and fatigue they wouldn't be able to put one foot in front of the other. Just as well they didn't arrive any earlier than Thursday afternoon or they would have been even more motivated.

After their miserable Tri Nations, and the unending negative press around their coach, clearly they were desperate for something good to happen. But whatever way they felt, surely Ireland's desire to get their season off on the front foot -- to lay down a marker for a possible rematch between these teams in the World Cup -- would be every bit as intense.

Instead, we got something akin to Declan Kidney's second day on the job, against New Zealand in the autumn of 2008. If you recall the flatness of that day then multiply it many times for yesterday.

Billed as the homecoming to Lansdowne Road, we got an awful game played out in front of a crowd that came in so far short of the full house as to be an embarrassment. And the way Ireland played in the first half we wondered how many of them would come back out after the break.

You shouldn't be misled by the scoreline either. It was remarkable that Ireland were only 13-6 behind at the break, and equally so that with just over 10 minutes left they trailed 23-9, and yet at final whistle the Boks were desperately scrambling to get the ball off the park to secure the win. Perhaps that tells us something about the South Africans though: they are far from a creative force and, offered the miserable stuff put in front of them by Ireland, they hadn't the wherewithal to nail the game earlier. That's not too unusual. That they left six handy points behind them however definitely fits that category.

In the circumstances it didn't look critical because there was so much going wrong with Ireland's game that a successful comeback looked to be off the agenda. Their lineout, for example, came out around the 50 per cent mark, with six throws lost. Their scrum too was shaky. And on a day when there was a huge downpour in the second quarter on top of an already greasy surface, to be wobbling in those areas was like trying to mountain climb in flip flops.

All of which was food and drink to the world champions. Yes, they have had a horrible time of it and they had a few of their forwards well short of a gallop, but they are still formidable at the basics. Which is where Ireland were so awful.

Early on, when their defensive line was tight and organised and there were huge hits being made on Bismarck du Plessis -- first by Stephen Ferris and then Cian Healy -- you thought Ireland would comfortably have the measure of the Boks. Then the unforced errors combined with the sliding set-piece and it was an offer the South Africans couldn't refuse.

The video session will be mortifying for a team who desperately need to establish themselves at the top end of the game -- which means winning games like this. Early on it was Brian O'Driscoll letting the Boks off the hook by not letting go of Gio Aplon; then it was Healy messing up an attempt to take a quick free-kick. At the end, we had Jamie Heaslip somehow managing to ignore Luke Fitzgerald outside him when Ireland were countering from deep. Yes, it finished with a score, but that score for Rob Kearney came wide on the right leaving Ronan O'Gara with the toughest conversion possible.

He hit the post with it, but it would have been fitting had he squeezed it over, for on his 100th cap his late rise to the rescue was classic O'Gara. It was his beautifully judged punt for Tommy Bowe's try that had turned the heat on South Africa, and then he managed to fling it wide for Kearney to score.

In the build-up to that score Bryan Habana was binned for a deliberate block down, but the game was nearly up by then, and Ireland didn't have the time to make any extra numbers count. Instead we had to endure the Boks sticking the ball up their jumpers and slogging the game to a standstill.

They knew they would be able to do that much for they had given the Ireland pack a torrid time of it, walking them back metres at the maul and messing them up at the scrum. The only way you can survive this sort of shellacking up front is if your backs are doing a loaves and fishes job on it, but there were no miracles out there either.

Perhaps the worst of the unforced errors was Eoin Reddan's intercept pass to Juan Smith off bad lineout ball after 17 minutes. That gave the Springboks a 10-point platform, started on five minutes with a Morne Steyn penalty.

Jonny Sexton kicked two out of three in the first half to keep the home team in touch, and cancelled another Steyn penalty in the third quarter to leave it 16-9 to South Africa. When Zane Kirchner and Aplon combined nicely to leave Gordon D'Arcy and Bowe for dead, with Aplon scoring, a tally of 23-9 with 15 minutes left looked far too steep for a team playing as poorly as Ireland.

That they managed to come within a few inches of squaring the game was a tribute to their desire to get something out of the evening. But they didn't deserve to share the points here. This has been damaging in the short term and not too good for the World Cup plans either.

Sunday Independent

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