Boks scrape a morale-boosting win
Considering how many of their top players are out injured, the Springboks will probably be more than happy to have started their Grand Slam tour with a 23-21 win over Ireland at the opening of the new Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday night.
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But boy, did Victor Matfield’s men not half make life hard for themselves, with that old bogey that has plagued the Boks in recent years, substitutions, once against raising its head. The Boks had played conservative rugby most of the way, with the one-off-runner approach used so effectively by the Bulls some years back being the staple.
With the Bok pack dominant, particularly in the scrums, the Ireland pack had been prevented from getting a sniff in the first hour. Try though they did to get themselves into the game, their momentum was too often ruined by a poor attacking scrum, while the lineouts weren’t the dominant force they were in the corresponding match at Croke Park here last November.
Rain had fallen earlier in the afternoon, and it fell again 20 minutes in, thus rendering handling a treacherous business. It made the Irish quest to test the potentially vulnerable Bok defensive system that much more difficult to pull off. Given how they were coming second in the battle for possession, the Irish needed to survive on scraps, but those scraps were too often wasted as they struggled to come to terms with the slippery field and equally slippery ball.
The Boks delivered a high testosterone defensive effort, and it was clear from an early stage that they were getting the better of the collisions. If you had been asked to choose a winner at the quarter hour mark, it would have been hard not to go with the Boks, even though at that stage they were just 3-0 ahead.
That was to change a few minutes later when Juan Smith accepted the simplest of gift intercept opportunities off an Irish attacking lineout to run two thirds of the length of the field to score. Morne Steyn’s conversion made it 10-0, and after that it was always going to be hard for Ireland to come back given how hard the conditions made it to play their kind of rugby.
It was like that for most of the way, with the Boks always at least a converted try ahead -- until that is Peter de Villiers and his assistants decided that they were so comfortably ahead that they could afford to make the sort of en masse substitutions that so nearly lost them the first test against the British and Irish Lions last year.
Patrick Lambie, when he came on at flyhalf, did help create the excellent try that Gio Aplon rounded off from a switch from retreaded centre Zane Kirchner. But it was a big call to take Morne Steyn off when he was kicking the goals that were keeping the Boks ahead. And then when Adi Jacobs came on, suddenly the Bok backline looked disrupted, and Ireland were able to score twice in quick succession.
From 23-9 down with 12 minutes to go, the Irish, through tries to wing Tommy Bowe and fullback Rob Kearney, suddenly found themselves two points behind with a Ronan O’Gara conversion kick to come with five minutes to play.
O’Gara missed the kick, and full marks to the Boks for doing the wise thing by controlling possession for those last five minutes, thus preventing a repeat of the final Tri-Nations test against Australia where they conceded a penalty in the last minute which Kurtley Beale kicked to end a long drought for the Wallabies on the Highveld.
Controlling possession probably goes 90% of the way towards explaining what the Boks did right in this match, which was why it was so inexcusable that they almost ruined it by changing their formula in the final quarter.
By controlling possession the Boks were also able to control the territory battle, and they profited from the pressure they exerted on Ireland through the penalties that Steyn kicked to keep Ireland in a position where they would always have felt they needed to force the game.
Most of the game seemed to be played between the Irish 22-metre line and the halfway, and that heaped the odds against them in their endeavor to try and play rugby against the Boks. Their skipper Brian O’Driscoll later admitted that it might have been a mistake to try and play as much rugby as they did, and he acknowledged that it contributed to the high error rate.
The Boks by contrast were as low risk as it is possible to be, and it is hard to recall any occasion when they tried to be adventurous. Their approach though was what was needed in the conditions, and while this game definitely didn’t tell us that the Boks have moved their game in line with the changes that have taken the All Blacks and Wallabies ahead of them, that was not what was important in this opening game of the tour.
After the disasters of the Tri-Nations season, what the Boks need to do is to regain their pride, which means winning any which way they can. The Aviva Stadium may not be remembered as their most glamorous performance, but if it brings back the self-belief which must have been wavering after the Tri-Nations, then it might just be an important stepping stone.
The Boks should be the first to admit though that the Irish were well below par, and are some way short of being the team that won the Six Nations two years ago. Indeed, this was their fourth defeat in succession, and following on as it does from two massive losses to the All Blacks in New Zealand, perhaps the alarm bells should be starting to ring for the Irish.
The loss will hopefully bring a touch of humility for they came across as too arrogant in the build-up and that no doubt played a role in the steely determination that Victor Matfield and his men took onto the field with them.
Springboks – Tries: Juan Smith and Gio Aplon; Conversions: Morne Steyn and Patrick Lambie; Penalties: Morne Steyn 3.
Ireland – Tries: Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney; Conversions: Ronan O’Gara; Penalties: Matt Sexton 3.