Down to 14-men after 23 minutes, Ireland pulled off one of the greatest performances to beat two-time World Champions, South Africa in Cape Town
By Alex Shaw
Saturday was a day that will go down in history for Irish rugby fans.
Not only did their U20 side, the Wolfpuppies, beat reigning U20 World Champions New Zealand in Manchester, but their senior side also recorded a historic 26-20 victory over the Springboks in Cape Town.
At this point last week, victory seemed a distant prospect for Ireland and the narrative was the same wherever you looked ahead of their opening test match of the summer at Newlands. Never before had Ireland won in South Africa.
To compound matters, Ireland were also missing eight or nine players who would have conceivably started in their preferred XV were it not for injury and Joe Schmidt’s conservative style was being critiqued left, right and centre (myself included).
As if those three factors weren’t enough for Ireland to contend with, they were reduced to 14 men in the 23rd minute after CJ Stander received a highly-dubious red card for his collision with Pat Lambie.
Ironically, it was losing Stander that galvanised Ireland, who had been on the back foot when the game was 15-a-side, and summoned a resiliency and courage that saw them turn in one of the greatest victories in Irish history. There are no tactical or physical reasons as to why teams will, surprisingly often, perform better after having a man sent to the bin, but the mental sharpening and sheer determination to, in the opinion of the handicapped team, right an injustice, can reap strong rewards on the rugby pitch.
As for individuals, Paddy Jackson filled the void of Jonathan Sexton with interest, Jared Payne had one of his classiest games in a green jersey following the move to his favoured position of full-back and in the pack Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy and Jack McGrath, were exceptional, creating an oft impenetrable wall that waves of Springboks could do no more than break upon.
Much credit for that display must go to Ireland’s new defence coach, Andy Farrell. Under Les Kiss, Ireland’s propensity for winning turnovers increased but there were still times when holes were found in the line. The desire to hold ball-carriers up to force a maul or flood the breakdown could cause mismatches and overlaps a phase or two down the road. If Ireland can now mix that eagerness for turnovers with steely, high-intensity defensive lines that have come to be the trademarks of Farrell’s defences, then the sky is the limit for Ireland defensively.
Returning to the players, Luke Marshall, Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best were other standouts worthy of praise and, in fact, you would struggle to name an Ireland player on Saturday that had anything less than a solid game. Even Stander had been performing admirably before his contentious red card.
Ireland are now faced with the prospect of two opportunities to wrap up the series and add to the history they have already made. The first will come in Johannesburg on Saturday and the second a week later in Port Elizabeth.
That fixture in Johannesburg will see Ireland have to contend with the altitude factor but given both the performances of South Africa on Saturday (albeit not at altitude) and the lack of advantage South Africa A were able to hold over the England Saxons at altitude the night before, this isn’t necessarily a derailing issue for Ireland.
That said, altitude will play a role and combined with inevitable improvements in the Springboks’ play, it could well ensure that the series is tied up ahead of a thrilling final test at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
There are so many variables to consider going into this test in Jo’burg, including how physically and emotionally spent are Ireland after their dramatic victory, what kind of South African backlash is heading their way and will contrasting confidence levels in both camps have a bearing on their performances.
Ireland will certainly need to be aggressive at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday. They can’t rely on South Africa being as poor as they were this past weekend again and as fit as Ireland may be, they don’t want to be chasing the game in the final 20 when 1,700 metres above sea level.
Ireland’s fate is in their own hands, they are full of self-belief and they have two golden opportunities to once-again make history. It won’t be easy but a series victory is within Ireland’s grasp.
If reports are to be believed that Schmidt is in negotiations to take over at the Highlanders, then engineering a previously unthinkable series victory over the Springboks would be the grandest of parting gifts from the New Zealander.