A couple of years ago, it would have been hard for anyone to imagine an Irish team scoring a try like Mack Hansen did in the 50th minute of Saturday evening’s win over South Africa. A touchline to touchline move that saw the ball moving through the hands of 10 players in the space of 15 seconds (including six forwards) and a textbook example of how to punish turnover ball.
The Irish camp probably won’t like me saying they looked like France here but as far as I’m concerned, the more they look like France with ball in hand, the better. Hansen’s try was the perfect illustration of how far Ireland have come under Andy Farrell and the confidence his players have in taking risks in search of reward.
I doubt the passage of play, which was the direct result of grunt work from Sheehan and Ringrose at the South African breakdown, would have happened during Joe Schmidt’s tenure, when split-second decisions were made on the basis of what could go wrong, rather than what could go right. ‘Tempo’ doesn’t just refer to running around the place at speed, it means throwing caution to the wind on occasion to keep the ball alive.
We saw this multiple times in the build-up to this try: Doris’ near-impossible offload as he hit the deck to keep the ball in play; Ryan flinging the ball off the base of the ruck without hesitation; Porter tipping on to Bealham just before he gets hit, who instinctively finds Gibson-Park behind him; and Beirne delaying his pass to Keenan until the last second as Arendse misses the intercept by centimetres. It was the epitome of champagne rugby and the stand-out moment of a memorable win.
What is great is that the Irish attack is still a work in progress and there are still improvements to be made. Their commitment to moving the ball wide at every opportunity was impressive but the execution was not always there. We saw this a number of times in the first half in particular, with Hansen having to stop dead to catch the ball twice, killing his momentum and leaving him unable to capitalise on huge amounts of space.
Similarly in the 18th minute, after some lovely handling off first phase on the South African 22, Hansen threw an inaccurate pass to Keenan who had to jump off the ground to take it. Had the pass been on point, Keenan could have shifted it wide to Baloucoune on the overlap and a try-scoring opportunity would have been created. Instead, Mapimpi flew out of the line and creamed Keenan with a perfectly timed hit, with South Africa winning a turnover at the breakdown.
While it wasn’t always perfect, moving the ball wide repeatedly had a direct effect on what was happening in the tighter areas. Because South Africa had to respect the fact the ball could get shifted around, they could not afford to be stacked as tightly in defence. This meant more space and more soft shoulders for Irish forwards to carry at. Half a yard here and there is the difference between a negative carry behind the gain line and a positive one over it.
Combine this with a high-tempo game and you now have the ability to force world-class players into making basic errors, which happened on several occasions on Saturday. For instance, Gibson-Park’s lovely inside ball for Hansen to break the line in the 45th minute was a result of World Cup-winning captain Sia Kolisi making an error you would be hung out to dry for at academy level.
Kolisi is the ‘pillar’ or first defender next to the ruck. One of the cornerstones of ruck defence at every level of rugby is that the pillar does not move if the nine breaks with the ball. He has to stay where he is to cover the exact line that Hansen ran – inside the nine, tight to the ruck. If the nine breaks, it’s the second defender’s job to step in and take him. This is elementary stuff.
After a multi-phase onslaught that had the Boks defence in disarray, Kolisi had to make a quick decision on the back foot and made the wrong one. He took the bait and committed to hitting Gibson-Park, leaving the channel next to the ruck exposed for Hansen to burst through. A few phases later, Malherbe conceded the penalty that led to van der Flier’s maul try.
Regardless of how big, strong and athletic a side is, very few can live with the fast, varied and accurate attack Ireland produced in this sequence of play. And while there was a lot to get excited about in attack, it was only one part of an impressive collective performance. Above all else, Ireland’s forwards had to get the basics right against arguably the most formidable pack in world rugby. Neutralising the South African set piece was crucial for a result to be possible.
Ireland gave an exhibition in maul defence. With the exception of a penalty off the first lineout of the game, the Springbok maul was stopped in its tracks all evening. ‘Cornering’ refers to hitting the edges of a maul at an angle, with your head on the outside, to stop the opposition from rolling ‘around the corner’ and generating momentum.
Many teams try to implement this in their maul defence but very few manage to get it right against a team of South Africa’s size and calibre. It sounds simple but it is not. Munster, for example, have been visibly poor at cornering this season and as a result, have invited opponents to exploit what has become something of a weakness.
The Irish pack did it perfectly on Saturday and next time you’re watching a maul-heavy game like this, pay attention to the difference it makes when the defensive side corners well, with their heads on the outside. The icing on the cake was that Ireland not only managed to remove the maul as a South African weapon, they scored one of their own to pull ahead in the second half.
It was a similar story at scrum time. While a couple of Irish penalties were 50/50 calls that could have gone either way, South Africa failed to get the upper hand that has catapulted them to victory so many times in recent years. The Boks would have been licking their lips when Tadhg Furlong failed to emerge for the second half but Finlay Bealham could well be the happiest of any player in Irish camp this week after the 40-minute shift he put in.
Bealham has become an indispensable part of the Connacht project and is a consistently strong performer at club level, as evidenced by his man of the match award against Munster a few weeks ago. The way he handled Ox Nché, whose remit as a Springbok is to come off the bench and obliterate the opposition scrum for 25 minutes, bodes well for Ireland’s options at front row ahead of next year’s World Cup.
This was an excellent result that justifies Ireland’s position at the top of the World Rugby rankings but we shouldn’t get too carried away. Damian Willemse had an awful day with the boot, both out of hand and off the tee. South Africa left a total of seven points behind from shots at goal, five of them very kickable. Had someone else started at 10, it may well have been a different story at the full-time whistle.