Thursday 17 October 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'One moment during clash of the titans perfectly summed up Ireland's World Cup dilemma'

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2019 - Pool B - New Zealand v South Africa - International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama, Japan - September 21, 2019. South Africa's Franco Mostert reacts. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden
Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2019 - Pool B - New Zealand v South Africa - International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama, Japan - September 21, 2019. South Africa's Franco Mostert reacts. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Hardly ideal for a World Cup in any code that one of its four pools should not have so much as a ripple of interest after its first game was complete.

So be it. That is one of rugby's shortcomings, where in this ninth staging of the tournament still only the usual suspects loiter with intent. One of the game's selling points, however, is that they are so menacing. 

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Most of the Ireland squad watched this audition for a quarter-final from the team room of their hotel, the Sheraton Yokohama. 

If they had gone all old-fashioned and, with a pen and paper, made their list of pros and cons about playing either New Zealand or South Africa, the things to be wary of would have taken up more space.

Consider the following for New Zealand: for most of the first quarter they had been stuck in reverse — scrambling, dodging, and generally looking like hares sharing a field with a pack of greyhounds — when they turned the tables in a sequence that illustrates their quality.

So, under intense pressure, Richie Mo'unga gets a kick pass off to Sevu Reece. It was lateral rather than forward, so the winger had his own problems to deal with from Makazole Mapimpi — who was blessed not to have been carded for an earlier offence.

Reece coped, manfully. By the time the Springboks realised what was happening, George Bridge was crossing for a New Zealand try.

And that summed up the teams, and indeed the dilemma for Ireland. For a quarter of this contest Rassie Erasmus's pressure game was working almost perfectly. On the basis that what's rare is wonderful, the rest of the world delights in the sight of All Blacks all at sea. 

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It was like one of those episodes of Trawlermen: the black boat was plunging into great troughs, coming back up for air only to be hit with another giant wave. 

Between defusing bombs from Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard, and scrambling behind the gain-line trying to avoid being emptied in contact, New Zealand were under intense pressure. Critically, however, they weren't conceding points.

A South African rugby nut we know was on the blower soon after the final whistle complaining about the standard of refereeing which he reckoned had robbed Fiji, Argentina and South Africa, in that order. It may be unique for a tournament to be wading into the referees on day two. We can understand his upset about all three. Pumas coach Mario Ledesma put it like this after France had beaten his side: "It's a shame to be refereed like a small nation."

Meantime, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen would have been delighted with the stat of just four penalties conceded over the 80 minutes, which was remarkable given how much time his side had spent under pressure. 

Equally he would have been relieved that Joe Moody had not been blown twice in the opening 10 minutes when Bok tighthead Frans Malherbe was burying him at the scrum.

So, watching on from Yokohama, the Ireland lads were given a rerun on stuff they surely already know — which is not to say that a refresher was not useful. 

First, if you're going to get a spell where the All Blacks are back-pedalling then the place you really need to put them is behind their own posts, awaiting your conversion. Referee Jerome Garces could have dealt South Africa a few better cards here but Erasmus won't dwell on that too long.

Second, if you can keep Pollard away from the kicking tee then it means the Boks are running out of ideas. They are the most powerful team in the competition, but despite having top-quality creative talents in Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe, pictured below, they only get a look-in from broken play. 

The Springboks are extremely structured but — and we saw this in Munster when Erasmus was at the wheel there — are unprepared to put in a few platforms to support players who can mix it up.

How hard can it be? It would be unfair to characterise South Africa's approach yesterday as brute force and ignorance for there was variety in the way they were beating up the All Blacks.

When they had the ball they took the Kiwis into channels where they were vulnerable, and when they didn't have it they gave us more examples of how, for South Africans, defending aggressively is part of their culture.

We've moved on from 2007 though, when they last won the World Cup with a two-track album: batter the opposition; kick your points. It remains to be seen if Ireland are able to benefit from this shortcoming. Only New Zealand are able to ride out those kind of storms and still be in good nick to finish the voyage. Nothing new in that.

There may be a dead calm in Pool B but there is still a long way to go.

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