While fireworks lit up the skies over England last Friday night, all that Saturday afternoon in Dublin could offer was squibs of the dampest kind. What should have been a celebration of the new Aviva stadium qualified, instead, as one of the biggest anti-climaxes that Irish rugby has experienced.
The lack of support through the ticketing fiasco has been well-documented, the appalling weather played an admirably supporting role, and to finish it off Ireland misfired quite dramatically. It is also incredulous but true that, while Ronan |O’Gara’s conversion could have rescued the day for Ireland, it would have actually contributed further to the gloom. Rugby supporters are usually fair creatures and we know that Ireland did not deserve to take anything from the match.
Last week, I stated my belief that the biggest challenge in facing South Africa was whether Ireland’s forwards could match the Springbok intensity and physicality. The answer was a resounding no. In fact, the term ‘shellacking’ that Barack Obama recently reintroduced back into the English language might be the best way to describe the hiding that the Irish forwards took at the set-piece and contact area.
For me, the real countdown to the 2011 World Cup starts now and with every game Ireland will learn something about themselves and the opposition.
From a South African perspective, even if this squad was at full-strength, it lacks the subtlety, creativity and extra dimension to lift the next World Cup. If you can match the Springboks’ physicality, as Australia and New Zealand were able to do in the most recent Tri Nations, then pure rugby-playing ability should win the day.
From an Irish point of view, I do not believe that Ireland can, or will, play this badly again. Every rugby player knows what it is like playing your first match of the season. It doesn’t matter how smoothly training has gone, real competition exposes the cobwebs and lack of match practice. While South Africa had suffered major disruption in the lead-up to the game, the squad still had the experience of six Tri Nations games against first-class opposition under its belt.
So, while I expect things to improve, Declan Kidney must have serious concerns that the Springboks, albeit in their limited manner, ruthlessly displayed two key areas of deficiency. Without Paul O’Connell there is a huge leadership gap in the lineout and, as has been abundantly clear for a long time now, the scrum is a major area of weakness.
There are no easy answers, although Ulster prop, Tom Court, has surely played himself into pole position. Court’s quiet and self-effacing manner belies a steely core and his value to Ireland will only increase in the coming months and years. Sometimes when you look back on your career, you can identify occasions where it was better not starting a match. Tony Buckley’s poor performance and current injury is a real opportunity and it may turn out that last Saturday represents a watershed in Court’s international career.
Victor Matfield was imperious in the lineout and rightly received man of the match award, but his single most telling contribution was in Rob Kearney’s try. The giant South African made a monumental effort to cover the ground to get to Ireland’s fullback. His all-encompassing tackle ensured that O’Gara had a much harder conversion than it might have been had Kearney managed to sneak vital metres in the scoring zone. Matfield won the match for South Africa.
To a large extent, South Africa beat the belief out of Ireland, but ironically it took the Munster axis of O’Gara and Stringer to lift the gloom. They entered the fray like two old gunslingers and their tenacity and experience offered those around them clarity and urgency for the first time in the game. Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing, but you suspect that the changes should have been made much earlier.
Until those last 15 minutes, the Lansdowne roar was largely muted. Given the numbers, or lack thereof, one might expect that the Aviva will hardly be a cauldron this Saturday either. The only way to lift the crowd and the dark clouds will be through quality of play and a big performance against Samoa is essential.