Saturday, November 10, 2012


South Africa overcame Ireland for just the second time in 12 years at Lansdowne Road in a game that saw a complete turnaround after the break. Ireland led 12-3 at half-time but Jamie Heaslip’s spell in the bin after the restart ultimately cost the hosts.
It took just four minutes for Richardt Strauss to leave his mark on the international rugby landscape. Or, rather, it left its mark on the new Irish hooker who had to go off for treatment on a burst lip. If there is still some debate about granny rules and naturalisation, no-one will be unhappy about the recruitment of players such as Strauss if they offer quality options.
There was a time when the end-of-year international series were, quite simply, a nightmare.
Between 1993 and 2001 Ireland lost six tests (to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, all twice) by an average margin of almost 20 points. The nearest Ireland got to any of them was 10 points, against Australia in 1996 and against South Africa at the turn of the century.
Horror defeats against the All Blacks (expected) and Italy (not so much) in 1997 eventually did for the Brian Aston regime. Warren Gatland was in charge and almost masterminded a win over New Zealand in 2001 before one of the best generations of Irish rugby players enjoyed a breakthrough 18-9 win over Australia in 2002. In the period that followed, there were three wins against South Africa -- in 2004, 2006 and 2009 – so this game held happy enough recent memories.
But Declan Kidney has found himself under increasing pressure since 2009. The statistics aren’t kind to him since the Grand Slam season: Eight wins in 15 Six Nations games; only three in nine against the ‘Big Three’ home nations.
It’s a rarity now in modern international rugby that teams can put out full-strength sides, such is the usual injury toll. Kidney’s character indicates a less experimental side would have been chosen if certain players had been available but circumstances meant the home fans were able to assess potential future options. There were some worries about the lack of ball-carriers going into Saturday’s game in the absences of Stephen Ferris and Sean O’Brien, in particular, but early robust surges from Strauss and Mike McCarthy offered renewed hope.
Conor Murray went into the game under pressure but some early snappy passes and a couple of tidy box-kicks took him into the groove. Ireland were reading the Springboks attack with almost psychic precision and if McCarthy was landing opponents on their backsides, Chris Henry at openside was hungry for work at the breakdown.
Although Ireland were offering more in an attacking sense, there were mistakes in possession on both sides. The home side struggled to make any clean breaks and when Henry found himself isolated (how many times have we been frustrated with that aspect of our game in recent years?), South Africa threw away the chance to make it 9-6 approaching the half-hour.
As if to reinforce the point above, when Keith Earls did make ground down the right with a sprightly run, the support was again slow to show. Simon Zebo, at full-back and starting authoritatively under the high ball, if a little off radar with the boot, involved himself twice in a move that led to a penalty under the posts.
It was scrappy stuff, though, and it wasn’t a great surprise when the mercury rose a degree or two after Sexton’s successful kick. JP Pietersen, who made that eyebrow-raising claim about David Skrela during the week, made himself even less popular with the home support when he charged into Henry under a high ball, a misdemeanour that put him in the bin but could easily have been red. There were no handbags damaged in the exchanges that followed but the numerical advantage meant Ireland were able to keep their opponents pinned in their own half.
The first serious maul of the game saw Strauss scamper forward towards the South Africa 22 but possession was wasted out wide. Play was called back only for Sexton to make his first mistake of the evening, pulling his shot wide.
South Africa are coming off the back of a tough recent series in the southern hemisphere and, at times, they didn’t look all that interested. Jaco Taute and Jean de Villiers tower over Gordon D’Arcy and Keith Earls but the Ireland midfield duo were under no physical pressure in the opening period when logic says they should have been primary targets for the away side.
There was an immediate improvement after the break, though, and Jamie Heaslip was rightly sent to the bin as South Africa pummelled the Irish line following a destructive maul. The Springboks ran the resulting penalty and Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar stretched to touch down under the posts and the conversion reduced the margin to two.
Before Heaslip returned, the away side made it 10 points in 10 minutes to go a point up. Ireland finally made inroads in the direction of their opponents’ 22 only for another error to send the South Africans mauling down the other end. Taute and de Villiers were finally making yards and Ireland defended desperately to turn a ball over on their own line.
Murray, who had a decent game, was replaced with Eoin Reddan on the hour, just after Sexton failed with a long-range penalty. Reddan has had his case made for him by those who say he gets his backline moving quicker, and he needed to prove that as Ireland rarely threatened to out-flank the visitors.
South Africa were dominating territory now and Stauss and Mike Ross showed the physical toll of the war up front when they were slow to rise following the concession of another penalty at scrum time. Patrick Lambie put South Africa four points up before Kidney sent for the substitutes, Iain Henderson and Michael Bent among them.
The latter made an immediate impact, helping his new side win a penalty at the next set-piece between the packs.
From the resulting phases Ireland probed but there was little creativity and the ball was again easily turned over by a now physically dominant opponent. Ireland had a couple of remaining chances to run but South Africa comfortably held out to complete a comeback that looked very unlikely at the break.
Over all, there were positives. McCarthy and Strauss were excellent at times and Bent shored up the scrum late on. But there is also plenty to worry about and it will be the Pumas relishing the test that will round off the series following their impressive win in Cardiff.

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