It finally arrived, the match we’ve all been waiting for: the World Champions facing off against the #1 team in the world. The venue: the Aviva Stadium. The event: the Autumn Nations Series.
The Irish opened the scoring with a Johnny Sexton penalty just minutes in after Garry Ringrose collected a chip in midfield to get behind the Springbok defence. However an error off the restart and a penalty from the resulting lineout allowed the visitors early possession in the 22, and though the Irish defence held them out, it was at the expense of a simple 3 points for Damian Willemse. A close affair in the opening half hour saw neither team able to to threaten much with their possession, even when the visitors were down a man for 10 minutes following a yellow card to Cheslin Kolbe, while Stuart McCloskey—a late call-up to the starting line-up following Robbie Henshaw’s injury—was lost to injury after 27 minutes, allowing Jimmy O’Brien to come on for his debut, having initially been named in the Ireland “A” squad earlier in the week. Ireland finally had a chance after half an hour, though, with hooker Dan Sheehan charged down Willemse’s kick and kept pace with Jesse Kriel on the chase, only to knock on as he tried to ground the bouncing ball. This appeared to spur the Irish on in the following minutes and they took the lead with another penalty, while Conor Murray and Lood de Jager were both lost to injury, with Jamison Gibson-Park and Franco Mostert replacing them. A clever grubber from de Allende and chase from centre teammate Jesse Kriel set the Boks up for a cross-kick to Makazole Mapimpi, which was just covered by Robert Balacoune, and just moments later, James Ryan successfully stole a South African lineout on his own 5m line, with Tadhg Furlong doing a great job to recover the loose ball in his in-goal and power his way through contact to set up the ruck back in the field of play, denying the visitors an attacking 5m scrum and allowing Ireland to clear their lines. However the Springboks had time for one more attack off the resulting lineout, and some strong carrying in midfield allowed Cheslin Kolbe to kick a simple penalty to level the scores at 6-6 at the break.
As the second half kicked off, Furlong was added to the injury list as he failed to appear for the second half, but after his replacement Finlay Bealham was lucky to win a penalty when under heavy pressure at the scrum, Mack Hansen and Jimmy O’Brien both made breaks to force the visitors’ defence to give away a penalty. Sexton, himself struggling after taking a big hit, kicked to the corner, and though the Boks drove the maul into touch, the Irish got enough of a forward push for Player of the Match Josh van der Flier to just dot down for the opening try just before being pushed into touch. And they were over again in the same corner just minutes later after Caelan Doris reacted fastest to the ball shooting out the back of a ruck, with the ball quickly going through the hands to find the space against a defence in transition and spread the ball wide for Mack Hansen to score. This prompted the inclusion of Willie le Roux from the bench in place of Arendse. And the experienced fullback immediately started to improve the quality of the attack as the game loosened up, with a clever grubber to the corner creating a great chance for Kriel before he sent Franco Mostert over for a crucial try with 13 minutes remaining, Kolbe’s conversion rebounding off the post to keep the deficit at 5 points. With just 7 minutes remaining, Sexton made it a two-score game with a tricky penalty from out wide, which proved vital as Eben Etzebeth used his incredible wingspan to offload out wide to put Kurt-Lee Arendse over in the corner with 4 minutes left, Kolbe missing the conversion from the touchline, and the #1 team in the world were able to hold on in the final minutes to secure a 19-16 victory.
This was a statement victory form Ireland. Granted the Boks were missing the best player in the world and their clear first choice at fly half, but ireland were missing a few crucial players themselves (notably late omission Robbie Henshaw) and played over half of the game with a debutant in the centre.
While the gaps may have opened up later on as Willie le Roux took control of the game, the Irish defence had an answer for almost everything the Springboks could throw at them. They fronted up physically, stopped the Boks having things their own way in the kicking game and made some crucial turnovers. But more than that, they caused issues at the lineout and actually won the scrum for most of the game, though I would argue that Finlay Bealham got lucky with some decisions just after coming on. And then in attack, they put themselves in the right area of the pitch, attacked when the gaps were there and most importantly took their chances.
A year ago we began to see an Irish team that could throw the ball around from 1-23, and we saw that in key moments to take advantage of breaks and half-breaks, but no more impressive than Hansen’s try, which saw an incredible offload from Doris, followed by forwards and backs alike looking to get the ball to the men in space.
Having won a series against the All Blacks in New Zealand, they had to back that up this month. And a win over the World Champions was a great way to do so. Now, they need to find a way to maintain this level through the Autumn and Six Nations, while peaking as they go through the knockout rounds of the World Cup.
The Springboks have a problem at fly half. While Handré Pollard is the clear starter, he has missed time of late through injury, and is still prone to some worrying off days. Elton Jantjies remained the back-up for so long despite very few “on” days, but disciplinary issues appear to have ended his international career. Andyet despite neither of these players having been taking up space in South African franchises of late, apparently none of the clubs have managed to create a fly half good enough to be considered.
Damian Willemse continues to be given the chances in Pollard’s absence, but the more that he starts at 10, the more that he looks like a fullback or centre who can fill in at the position, as he struggled to create any attacking shape in the attack, missed a crucial penalty kick to touch just after the hour at 16-6, and kicked out on the full under limited pressure with 10 minutes left, while he was lucky that Dan Sheehan’s charge down of his clearance kick did not prove costly.
The power of the Springboks will be enough to beat many teams, but in order to defend their title in France next year, they will likely have to play at least 2 or 3 matches against teams who can front up to them physically. At times like that, they need more from their fly half. 12 months out from the main event, it feels like this is the one area where they are seriously lacking. And if they choose not to then play Willie le Roux (whose ability as a second playmaker to take pressure off his 10 is massively underrated) at 15, it could cost them.