Next Saturday’s Test becomes all the more appetising after the drama of the first, and Ireland should be wary of the reaction from the Springboks.
While the first ever victory over the Springboks in the Rainbow Nation should be savoured, it might mean little unless Ireland go on to win the series. The tour is about the team developing and trying out new combinations. Two out of three Test victories is not necessarily the primary goal, however they are too close now to not try and see it through and finish a somewhat deflating year on a high.
The South African players need to carry much of the responsibility for the loss. While there has been much change of late within the Boks’ set-up, this only goes so far in explaining their woeful inability to execute basic skills at times.
Their handling was dreadful. Inaccuracy of passes was the rule rather than the exception. Discipline was almost non-existent. There were far too many players who made decisions without any logic especially at the breakdown. Game management appeared to be an afterthought. It was the most scattered I have ever seen South Africa play at home.
And what of allowing an Irish side with only 14 men for the bulk of the game dominate the Springboks? As if his job was not hard enough, when I saw Andrew Trimble pack down on Mike Ross’ hip as he was set to do battle against the Beast, I genuinely felt sorry for Ross. But the Boks failed to dominate them even in this area too. Ireland even gained the upper hand in the scrum battle with seven forwards and an Ulster winger.
The team will be reeling from the loss and they are sure to come in for much criticism over the coming days. The Springboks come from a proud rugby heritage that spreads far and wide in the country. It will rankle with them that they were put to the sword so meekly.
As if there were not enough question marks over his credentials in ascending to the top job, Allister Coetzee will now feel the pressure all the more keenly as he readies his troops for redemption. If the rabble were not happy before, they will be livid now.
Both the players and Coetzee will be restless for the second Test to kick-off.
What does this mean for Ireland? If Andy Farrell is to take plaudits for how he prepped the Irish defence – as Pundit Arena columnist George Hook has begrudgingly allowed him – he will have a far greater challenge ahead of him this week. The Springboks simply cannot be so narrow and blunt in attack again. They will seek to impose themselves physically in every contact situation; the first few collisions will be seismic. Farrell will look to ensure Ireland win those encounters to set a platform to utilise their defence as a weapon.
Like much of Schmidt’s tenure with Ireland, the game plan is dictated by two major factors: who is playing and who are they playing against. There was a subtle shift in the first Test from what we had seen from Ireland this year. At times we saw more width as forwards demonstrated some excellent handling skills and distribution. This makes sense when the physicality of the South Africans is considered. When Ireland did attack in the tight, there was more evidence of dictating the contact on their terms with some footwork. We even saw some offloads for those who have been pining for them in recent months.
There was a real sense of intensity about everything that Ireland did and this was hugely pleasing to see. They seemed galvanized by the dismissal of Stander and Henshaw and doubled their efforts to cover any gaps; not that there ever seemed to be many. Iain Henderson, Luke Marhsall, Conor Murray, Rory Best, Jared Payne, Paddy Jackson and Jordi Murphy were all sensational.
The Man of the Match award may well have been decided by throwing a dart at the Irish team pictures in the program.
No doubt Schmidt will have a few slight tweaks of the game plan before Saturday, but it was great to see some of the players’ more subtle skills on show. Hopefully we will see more of this if the circumstances allow it over the remaining two games.
The altitude up on the Highveld could well be a deciding factor in the next game. Irish players will be sore and battered from what has been a long season. They will face a Springbok side that will be tenacious and unrelenting. The Irish bench will be crucial in steering home a Test series victory if the opportunity presents itself.
If Ireland are to match what will be a much improved Springbok side seething from the shame of defeat, what an incredible Test match we are in for.
David Sharkey, Pundit Arena