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Jake White: I was surprised that Ireland didn't win by more

By Jake White
Eben Etzebeth of South Africa leads his side from the pitch as they are applauded by the irish team after the Bank of Ireland Nations Series match between Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

One of the first things you learn on coaching courses is that there are certain prerequisites you need in a successful team. One, you need a captain. Two, you need a goal-kicker and three you need a solid set-piece. Whereas other trends come and go, those fundamentals that have never changed.

Looking from the outside in, if you don’t go into a Test match with a Test-standard goal kicker, you’re generally going to lose. Any coaching manual will tell you that you need those nuts and bolts, like a tighthead that can lock down the scrum, or a decent set of locks.

For that reason, I was surprised that Ireland didn’t win by more. That’s what everyone feels in South Africa, and I feel the same. Why? Because the Boks didn’t play particularly well, but most importantly, they didn’t have a goal-kicker, which probably put us at a five-point handicap anyway. As it turned out, we lost by three.

The Springboks learnt lessons out in Dublin, but they can be fixed. They know that if they can go into that Pool decider in Paris next September with a reliable goal-kicker like Handre Pollard and other players who weren’t there, like Lood de Jager and Lukhanyo Am, they have the ability to beat Ireland at the World Cup, which is something they’ll take away. If Saturday was a measure of where both sides were before they met in France, I think both sides will be happy.

I saw earlier this week Jacques Nienaber defending the fact Damian Willemse was kicking on Saturday night. He explained that the only way you improve is by kicking in front of big crowds, but I don’t understand that logic because Willemse was demoted as a front-line goal-kicker by the Stormers for Manie Libbok because he wasn’t sticking the ball through the uprights regularly enough, so that rationale doesn’t really wash. The reality is he wasn’t kicking at provincial level and then they thrust him into a Test match as the main kicker, so got what they deserved. There’s no use dodging the bullet; Jonny Wilkinson won England the World Cup, Percy Montgomery won South Africa the World Cup, Dan Carter won the All Blacks the World Cup because they were brilliant kickers. Hindsight doesn’t win you Test matches and they missed a trick.

There were, of course, periods the Springboks dominated, and they played well in the first 25 minutes. They put Ireland under incredible pressure. That’s the first time in a while they’d have played against such an aggressive defence and, at times, they looked rattled. For a team that is normally so well-oiled, so slick and so competent at holding onto the ball for many phases, early on, it looked like South Africa were going to fold them, but after that, the game got away from the Springboks.

I have to say, there was a lot of pressure on Ireland. If they’d lost the game, there would have been a sense of déjà-vu. That doubt rattling around about not delivering when it really mattered – you know, when they’re expected to win and kick on – so it will have done wonders for their resolve. It was a must-win game and proved the series win out in New Zealand was no fluke. Confidence and belief will be coursing through them right now.

Their summer Tests remind me of 2003, when Clive Woodward took a team down to New Zealand and Australia and famously beat them in their own back yards. I remember his words vividly, ‘Now we’re ready to win the World Cup’. Those results were the cornerstones of their assault on the trophy Down Under. If you go back to 1998, they’d lost 76-0 in Australia, so it was quite an arc of improvement. I mention this because I’m a keen history student and you learn lessons from the past. The sort of markers Ireland are putting down now are reminiscent of what England achieved in Sydney.

As for the Boks, they need to sharpen their focus. The fact Rassie is not going to Munster for the midweek game and heading to Paris early is telling. It says to me that the Boks expected to win in Ireland and they’ve put a premium on not losing back-to-back Test matches. His absence in Cork could make the South Africa A players not feel too important without their Director of Rugby there, but that’s the call he’s taken.

Their selection for France does tell us a few things. From week one to week two, they’ve decided to change place-kickers. Cheslin Kolbe has been designated to take the tee, so it will be very interesting to see how that works out given all we’ve discussed. They’ve also gone for a 5-3 bench. It seems to be they’re going back to a tried and tested formula, having a powerful bench with the famous ‘Bomb Squad’ members Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch ready to beef up that pack in the last half hour. It’s also interesting to see Cobus Reinach on the bench, because he’s played in France and knows the opposition so well. When the pressure is on, you retreat to what you learnt in manual one.

While questions have been asked of the Boks, France were underwhelming against the Wallabies, and the narrow score line raised eyebrows. I actually asked myself this question, ‘Is it easier to play France when they’ve had a scare or after a handsome win?’ They were lucky to emerge victorious against Australia and the way Dave Rennie’s pack manhandled their counterparts would have made South Africa very, very excited – they will be licking their lips. The Wallabies mauled them to pieces, scrummaged them off the ball, which is almost unheard of. France are missing Paul Willemse’s scrummaging power and Cyril Baille was hurled into action after a long injury lay-off, they’re a little way off full-strength up front.

A note of caution, however, before South African fans get carried away. Having coached in France, I know they won’t play like that again. The will rebound from that performance. That’s the French way.

The statisticians will tell you France have broken a longstanding record with 11 consecutive wins, which goes back to 1987 and the days of Serge Blanco and Philippe Sella, so they’re in a catch-22, do they experiment with new players, or try to keep that run going with an expectant French public?

It’s funny, I actually took over from Fabien Galthie when he got fired from Montpellier. I arrived into the environment he created. What I think is he is good at – and he’s proved it now – is maintaining selection consistency that previous French coaches lacked. He’s quite pragmatic, almost conservative. He always has a kicker, whereas before France would flip-flop between Lionel Beauxis, Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra, Freddie Michalak – there was no long-term faith in their kicker. Now he’s gone for Melvyn Jaminet, who is injured but he has good back-ups in Thomas Ramos, Romain Ntamack, who is a decent goal-kicker, or Matthieu Jalibert. It’s a more considered approach.

Everyone talks about the French flair, but this group are more predictable. You know what you’re going to get, and that’s not a criticism. He’s ring-fenced a core group of players and it’s also notable that he now has an overseas influence in the coaching group. Shaun Edwards brings all he’s learnt from his time in England and Wales, Rafa Ibanez spent a long time with Wasps and then you have Vlok Cilliers, who is a South African. They’ve embraced non-French ideas and it’s working for them. Galthie has a plan and he’s not going to deviate from it because his team likes winning. It’s becoming a habit.

They’d been so poor in the Six Nations for so long, but they’re finally punching at their weight as a top-tier nation. It’s long overdue.

Looking ahead, the one thing that could destabilise them is serious injury to Antoine Dupont because he is unequivocally the best player in the world and ‘the face’ of the 2023 World Cup in France. I remember watching him at Castres before he moved to Toulouse and you could tell he was a little special then. Stop him and you stop France. Do that and the Springboks will fancy their chances.

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