Tony Ward: Sorry Irish unable to weather the storm
God be with the days when you woke up as an Irish player, looked out the hotel window and got down on your knees in praise of the inclement weather.
The worse it was the deeper and more heartfelt the gratitude.
Those are times long past and on Saturday the uncomfortable but far from unplayable conditions certainly favoured the visitors.
Of the top three in world rugby the Springbok way of doing business is the easiest to comprehend relentlessly predictable but extremely difficult to overcome.
In order to beat the Boks you must match physicality in the basics. Getting the primary fundamentals is a given. Insecurity at line-out or scrum and an uncomfortable afternoon is guaranteed.
So it proved on Saturday where a ropey return out of touch allied to what could be best described a neutral scrum was added to immeasurably by a backline out of sorts in the conditions and under pressure from a Jean de Villiers-led backline. On days like this the no-nonsense former Munster centre is made to measure midfield material.
To suggest the rain and greasy ball was not a factor mitigating against an Irish backline geared to run is as unfair as it is untrue. Fingertip passing a greasy ball is nigh on impossible making it a day when numbers one to ten take overall control. Individually and collectively the visitors did that essential better. Even the normally ultra private Declan Kidney dropped his guard in the post-match disappointment when conceding “we probably could have won a bit more ball had we gone to the front of the line-out, but we were trying to play so we were putting pressure on ourselves to win middle and back ball”.
When he says “play” what he means is more expansively, attacking the wider channels in which we appeared stronger by way of pre-match selection at least. But as he knows only too well there are days when conditions and circumstances dictate the pre-match plan is thrown in the bin. Saturday in a mute Lansdowne Road (the final eight minutes apart) was one such day.
Whatever else, the Boks don’t do compromise and in terms of cohesive commitment and physicality in forward numbers in attack they set the tone, save for the final Ronan O’Gara inspired salvo. What added to this opening Autumn international disappointment, quite apart from the blocks of empty seats, was that it was the visitors at the end of a long and arduous domestic season who appeared with the greater appetite. Yes there were early hits of intent from Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy to name but three but were the proverbial blanket to be dropped from the sky it would have covered the (forward) unit in white rather than that in green.
In the end just two points separated the sides and had not O’Gara’s final conversion come back off the post it would have finished all square. Had that happened it would have been a grave injustice. The better team playing the more pragmatic rugby tailored to meet the occasion, the opposition and indeed their own shortcomings (in terms of injury) dug out the result they unquestionably deserved.
For Kidney the negatives far outweigh any positives but at least he has Samoa in six days time to get back on track for the All Blacks now less than a fortnight away. With hand on heart I am struggling to identify any real positive from Saturday’s damp squib. O’Gara’s 15-minute tour-de-force has, if anything, added to the dilemma for this Ireland management.
For sure it has reopened the out-half debate and we all know what that means in terms of media frenzy — an inevitable sideshow he could well do without. That said if there was one unit winner it was the second half arrival of the century cap maker and his scrum half partner Peter Stringer.
While it would be wrong to say that Kidney was out-thought it is certainly right to say his side was outmuscled not bullied but certainly outmuscled. When it came to the hard yards, indeed hard inches, it was the Boks establishing that all important go forward momentum. Victor Matfield’s side won this November game not because they wanted it more on paper but because they adapted better on wet uncompromising grass. It was set up for our day, our ground opening occasion but it was the underfire reigning world champions who seized the moment and I defy anyone to suggest it anything but the right and most fitting result.