Ireland defied the odds to beat South Africa 29-15 in Dublin on Saturday. Here are five things we learned about Joe Schmidt's side from the match...
Ireland are building strength in depth
There was a lot of doom and gloom in the build up to this game with column inches devoted to Ireland’s long injury list as they prepared to face the world’s number two side. Even the most optimistic of Ireland fans did not expect Saturday’s result (never mind that scoreline) with many feeling the most positive frame of mind was to look at this as an experimental autumn series that would make way for a strong Six Nations, from which the World Cup squad would be selected. Commenting on the injuries Paul O’Connell said: “You move out and we move on,” and that is exactly what Ireland showed. Joe Schmidt is building a strong squad and this series is giving the likes of Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Rhys Ruddock invaluable experience for a big year ahead.
Schmidt continues to surprise
Schmidt came into the Ireland job with a reputation for attacking flair and producing sides that are inventive with the ball in hand. What was impressive at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday was seeing the Irish defence being so strong and able to match South Africa in the physical aspects of the game. The Springboks found themselves being hit hard by two men in the tackle and were driven back time and again. This slowed down their attacking ball and meant the likes of the talented Pollard and the speedsters out wide were unable to find any room or space. Judging by this defensive display, particularly in the first half, Ireland will not be easy to beat any time soon.
Sexton’s ‘tweak’ a warning to Irish abroad
He may be the only one of Ireland’s first choice internationals playing outside the Pro12, but he’s one of the most important men on the pitch. Johnny Sexton’s talents have been recognised for years but now his partnership with Conor Murray is reaching world class levels. Their kicking game was outstanding and allowed Ireland to keep the big South African side turning. Knowing that Sexton injured his hamstring playing for Racing Métro the previous week, it struck fear in the hearts of Ireland fans when he started stretching it in the final quarter. I don’t blame Racing for getting as much as they can out of their players when they pay them so well but it’s worrying for Ireland that Sexton could potentially be playing every week between now and the end of May. After that he will be back in Leinster’s care but it’s imperative with the World Cup only ten months away that he returns in in one piece.
Tactically turn teams strengths into weaknesses
Against the Welsh in the Six Nations, Sexton nullified the threat of their wingers by forcing them to run backwards to retrieve kicks. With New Zealand last year, Ireland targeted the breakdown. On Saturday, despite the South African line out being regarded as the best in the world, Ireland counteracted this by stepping off from the maul and thus removing the offside line. This tactic forced the South Africans to react, which they struggled to do.
Pundit’s apology was the cherry on top
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A great moment came after the match for Ireland fans watching it on RTÉ, when George Hook, a man considered the most outspoken and opinionated on Irish rugby, was forced to issue an apology. It lasted over a minute as he said sorry for underestimating Schmidt, for not believing the players had a chance against South Africa and without breaking into a smile (or looking particularly happy about the result) said it was “extraordinary how you can get it so wrong… And I am very happy to be wrong.” Hook doesn’t usually eat humble pie so this was a treat for everyone including Brent Pope and Conor O’Shea who giggled beside him, enjoying every minute.
Johnny Sexton is the Ireland cover star this month – click here to see what else is in the mag.