Sins of Commission

We could (and maybe should) be sitting here today talking about how Ireland had just become the 3rd team to win a series in South Africa, joining a pantheon that include the 1974 Lions and the 1996 BNZ-ers, but we fell agonisingly short up in Jo’burg. Going into the game, we thought we had a fantastic chance to seal the series, but that managing the altitude would be the biggest challenge.

And so it proved. We were 16 points ahead with 20 minutes to go but lost by 6, utterly decimated in the last quarter by the rampaging Springboks. It had began to feel ropey when Ruan Combrinck scored – it was the beginning of tired tackling (and non-tackling) and would not have surprised someone aware a sea level team were playing at 1800m. We scored again of course, but the frustration was we were unable to stem the tide. Could we have done anything about it? Well yes, but there are sins of omission and sins of commission.

When we saw the Ireland 23, we said that the starters would give us a great opportunity to win this game, but we had concerns about the low octane bench. This was the sin of omission. Whatever the altitude, you are going to use your 5 replacement forwards – if our gameplan was to get ahead of SA and hang on, you want to see some forwards on your bench who can come in and go mad for 20 minutes, hit everything and maybe crash into some Springboks too. In recent times, two of our most effective impact replacements have been Nugget and Ultan Dillane – but we picked neither. Instead we had Strauss, who on all known form offered less than Cronin, and Donnacha Ryan, who is a super player, but no Dillane off the bench. Maybe a better option as a starter than Dillane, but wearing 19 is a different task. In the event, every one of our forward replacements had little, if not negative, impact (except maybe Flashheart).

That’s the piano shifters. In the ranks of the piano players the selection was fine (albeit with very little alternatives in the case of 21 and 22) but our non-use of the bench was perplexing – five collective minutes for the 3 of them, with O’Halloran riding the pine for the whole game. In Ellis Park, with the Boks rampant from minute 60, that’s unforgivable. What was required from 60 onwards was simply to tackle – our starting backs had gone from making, to soaking, to missing and they were spent. No-one expected Madigan and O’Halloran to come in and run length of the field tries, but merely to make a couple of tackles and offer some respite. Both are actually good defenders as well – no Jonny Wilkinsons but no iHumphs either.

You’ll have to forgive the negative tone because we’re still so frustrated at the missed opportunity, but it needs to be pointed out how excellent Ireland were in the first half. The major impact of the lack of oxygen seemed to be dozy decision-making from the South Africans, who gave Ireland cheap penalties by the sackful (which should have been punished by a yellow by half time) and Ireland made them pay. Paddy Jackson had a great first half, and Furlong’s destruction of the Beast was incredible. This felt like the day Furlong truly arrived as a test rugby player.  We almost – almost! – put them away, and each of the two missed penalties to get to 22-3 may have sealed the deal. It was a truly excellent display, until the environmental constraints got us.

Problem is now, Coetzee has maybe stumbled upon his best team – expect Warren Whitely and Ruan Combrinck to start in PE, and Damian de Allende and maybe even le Roux have been successfully played into form. We’ll have Stander back, but we’re down Henshaw and another backline rejig is in prospect. Although a centre partnership of Olding and Marshall looks light, we’d prefer that to moving Payne from the 15 shirt. If Schmidt is true to his word of giving everyone gametime, we’ll see Healy and O’Halloran as well. It would have been a nice luxury to be able to start them in a dead rubber Test, but it ain’t the case. Which is frustrating.

Keep The Boks Down

Hello? Is there anyone out there? Is no-one listening to us?? We wouldn’t blame you – we haven’t been saying much recently due to <kids> and <stuff>. Sorry – we’re doing our best. To those who recognised us on our double date in the terrace with the Leinster ultras for the Pro12 semi – we’re touched, and the Ulsterman will be back. And maybe they’ll even win! Maybe.

Anyway, enough about the provinces, what about Ireland? We are still taking it in – we beat South Africa … in South Africa … with 14 men … for an hour! And we beat them well. I know the Boks are in organisational disarray with a new coach and having finally (mostly) moved on from the 2009 Lions generation, but still. As this season went on, Ireland have looked increasingly tired and uninspired, and the performance was completely out of the blue.

We think Schmidt is a better coach than Eddie or Deccie, but there was a definite sense of the malaise which took hold of those camps in 2007 and 2011 setting in. Our defence was passive and narrow, our attack virtually non-existent and the coach, with his conservative selection against the likes of Italy and his seeming refusal to consider a more expansive attacking gameplan (“Jared has never trained at fullback”), seemed ready to hunker down.

But a couple of things were happening. The first was a dose of some Traditional Wigan Values. Ireland hired Andy Farrell back in January, but he was only allowed to work in Axel’s Breakfast Club until June, and he has only had 2 weeks with the players – but there was a marked increase in aggression and line speed. It felt from the outside that perhaps Ireland needed a fresh voice, and it is to Schmidt’s credit that he has the humility to hire a man like Farrell, who is not going to be shy about expressing his opinions. When Deccie went looking for new blood after Gert Smal left (temporarily then permanently) in 2012, he ended up with Axel, plus a re-shaken dogs dinner of a ticket with Kissy as both defence and attack coach – in contrast, Schmidt has been backed by the Union to spend big and get one of the best around – and the impact looks immediate.

The other big thing to happen has been injuries. Joe Schmidt’s first choice fullbacks in his tenure have been Bob Kearney, Felix Jones and Zeebs – all of whom were unavailable to tour. When Schmidt was asked in the squad presser (which was, something a bid bonkers really, 4 days after the squad announcement) about who would be fullback, he mentioned Stuart Olding, Tiarnan O’Halloran .. and one of his centres moving back, then talked about Henshaw specifically. We felt that Payne was simply not going to be moved from the 13 jumper.

The argument has always been that Payne is our defensive linchpin and we just have to keep him there or we are risking anarchy – but we never really bought that one. Firstly, the system should never be that dependent on personnel that we cannot consider moving one guy (if it is true that Payne never lined out at 15 during training in the 6N, that’s poor), and secondly, Robbie Henshaw is a pretty good outside centre – he plays there for Connacht and they just won the Pro12. We never thought we would lose much by moving Henshaw out one and switching Payne to fullback – Henshaw is also an excellent defender, and the extra space at 13 allows him to offer more than crashing up the middle. We would then have a few options at inside centre, all Ulstermen; McCloskey (not touring, but very similar to de Allende, and a man who gets metres every time .. but is too loose for Schmidt), Bamm-Bamm (Test experience at 12, good passer, excellent defender and a good kicking game .. but playing 13 for Ulster to accommodate the Bangor Bulldozer) and Olding (classic second five, but just back from injury) – none of which you’d say aren’t worth a look at the very least.

But we digress – injury struck, and Payne was the man picked to play 15, and it was a remarkable success, for him, for Henshaw and for Marshall, who looks like a Test match animal. One can only hope that this wasn’t a temporary injury-enforced change and that we will go back to basics in November (who could have foreseen that Payne would be a brilliant fullback eh?), but it’s had an impact on our attacking play, arguably introducing a greater element of unpredictability in all three positions. Its a pretty depressing thought that injury continues to be our best selector.

Of course, we also lost Sexton as well, but we didn’t notice that much – Paddy Jackson had a very good game, and even kicked (one of) his drop goals! We had worried before the game that one Jackson start in three years, in a meaningless RWC warm up, perhaps wasn’t the best way of preparing for an injury to your injury-prone outhalf, but Jackson stepped in effortlessly. He is, in our opinion, the best passer in the country, but he kicked 86% of possession, something very Schmidt/Sexton-y.

Now, to address the Stander red. We’ve watched it a few times, and we think it was a red card – it was dangerous play, and there was no need for Stander to turn his hip into Lambie’s head. As with Jared Payne vs Saracens a few years ago, as soon as we saw it, we thought ” uh-oh, the red might be in play here” – and if you think it is, you can argue it’s a harsh red, but can’t complain too much.

Back to the bigger picture – we won by 6 points having played an hour down a man – what’s that benchmarked to – a 15/20 point win? It was comprehensive, and South Africa were a rabble at the end, short on inspiration, leadership and guile. They just didn’t seem to understand what was happening. And they are already making their excuses, with Coetzee claiming Ireland weren’t interested in playing rugby – but surely that’s what a Springbok coach wants? A team who will try and take them on up front and let themselves be mashed into the turf by large tough men? This is a team who are there for the taking – and we should be winning this series from here.

Now, the good news is that it is looking like the only player we will be down is CJ Stander, and only for one match. Given we are down a useful XV of injured players, that’s a break we need to make the most of. Amazingly, three of our bench didn’t play (or need to play) in Cape Town, but will that wash at 1,700m? Certainly, we don’t expect any experimentation – while we were pretty disappointed with Schmidt’s Italy selection in the Six Nations, but this time we’re going to get into bed with the flat earthers and say that a must-win Test in Ellis Park is no place for making changes. If the Springboks find their feet in Jo’burg, the final Test could be a train wreck.

We expect Ruddock to slot in for Stander, with Sean Reidy on the bench (gulp) – we’d want to see Henderson at 6 with Dillane into the team, but it isn’t Schmidt’s style, and he seems to see Henderson as purely a second row. Else, as you were – the rest of the lads will be needed in PE. The Springboks are there to be beaten – let’s bloody beat them.