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Why Ireland will be quietly chuffed over All Blacks win at Ellis Park

By Ben Smith
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell and Robbie Henshaw of Ireland after their side's victory in the Steinlager Series match between the New Zealand and Ireland at Sky Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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The way the All Blacks revived themselves in the second test in South Africa will have left Ireland feeling pretty good about their prospects when they face the Springboks later this year.

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Ireland completed a historic 2-1 series win over the All Blacks in July by coming back to win the last two tests, propelling them to the top of the world rankings, but they have not faced the Springboks since their 38-3 win in 2017.

In November they will meet again for the first time in five years, with much having changed between the two sides.

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Allister Coetzee is no longer the coach of South Africa, who then went on to claim the Rugby World Cup in 2019 under Rassie Erasmus, while Andy Farrell has succeeded Joe Schmidt to continue to take Irish rugby to new heights.

Leinster, who make up a large portion of the Irish team, were ambushed by Jake White’s Bulls side in the semi-finals of the United Rugby Championship, putting the typical South African squeeze on the perennial champions of the formerly named Pro14 and securing a stunning 27-26 win.

That loss shook Irish domestic rugby but that Bulls side is not the Springboks and the Leinster side does not play the same game as the national side, despite featuring many of the same players.

If the URC semi-final loss had raised concerns, watching the way the All Blacks took apart the Springboks will have buoyed Ireland and left head coach Andy Farrell with plenty of ideas to ponder.

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Ireland’s wins over the All Blacks in Dublin, Dunedin, and Wellington demonstrated a relentless mentality that essentially involved turning down every opportunity at goal to pursue tries.

It was a tactic founded on the belief that Ireland would tire out New Zealand on defence and their waves of possession would break the dam eventually. They were confident that they were simply fitter, more organised and would go further distances than the All Blacks.

Their belief was proven to be justified, as Ireland’s attack ran all over the All Blacks and then the defence completely suffocated the All Blacks’ shoddy attack in the final two tests for the most part.

They scored the first try in each of the three tests inside the first 10 minutes, starting with a tempo that New Zealand was either not expecting or couldn’t handle. The evidence suggests the latter, as Ireland had line breaks seemingly at will.

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For every minute that Johnny Sexton was on the field in that series, Ireland were the better side and his concussion and exit from the first test drastically altered that game.

Now, the All Blacks side that turned up in South Africa was different, one that reformed itself over the tour after hitting rock bottom in the first half of the series decider in Wellington.

The assistants were removed before the plane trip and a number of younger players were handed opportunities, freshening up the side that then played with more energy and urgency than what the Irish saw.

In the first test the Springboks applied their kick pressure game and kept the All Blacks under the thumb on the way to a comfortable win in Mbombela, despite some improvements by Foster’s side.

In the second test at higher altitude, the Springboks desires of containment were not satisfied as their big beef strategy got cooked like a Sunday braai by chef Mo’unga and his backline.

The 6-2 split became a massive liability at the back end of the test after all the reserve front rowers were sent into action in the first half, not to mention the loss of Jesse Kriel early with just two backs on the bench was a circumstance which favoured New Zealand greatly.

Ireland would have watched the game taking notes with a smile as the team they just ran off the park in New Zealand, ran over South Africa at Ellis Park.

Perhaps Ireland would even like to move the fixture from Dublin to Johannesburg to use the thin air after watching the ex-pat Springboks based in France and Japan struggle around the pitch.

This Ireland side is super fit and does not stop and the pack is full of power and speed with a world class backrow.

The starting No 8 from the British & Irish Lions side, Jack Conan, cannot crack the starting side a the moment with Caelan Doris the preferred No 8.

Josh van der Flier is a machine that made his mark in New Zealand and deserves to be in the discussion as the world’s best openside.

Who would challenge him for that title right now? Not Sam Cane trying to find his best still returning from injury.

Springbok captain Siya Kolisi had an incredible year in 2021, Wallabies captain Michael Hooper did too but is currently on leave absence.

But neither has started this year like Van der Flier, who registered 24 tackles from 25 attempts in the third All Blacks test and a turnover to boot.

His first test was 18 tackles from 18 attempts while his second test in Dunedin was 22 from 22 attempts again with a turnover. It wasn’t just the number of tackles it was the nature of them, along with his spacial coverage and incredible engine across the park.

The Irish flanker put forward such an incredible series in New Zealand and at the end of an extremely long season no less.

For Andy Farrell’s side, they must ensure that the ‘water breaks’ introduced by South Africa must be swiftly discarded for the Dublin test and implement similar plans to turn the Springboks strength against them.

Top of the list will be a high tempo game that perhaps uses the exit-by-width strategy employed by the All Blacks.

That was critical to turning around South Africa’s big men, forcing them to run 60 metres backward and then try and defend from there.

Line speed? What line speed? No team that has retreated that far will bring anything to the table other than a swiss cheese line and more gaps than a tube of Selley’s can fill.

Ireland already have the world’s best attack when Sexton is on the field, a game so detailed that no one can even try to flatter it with imitation, while their defence is fast they will be confident of swallowing up the Springboks carry game.

The clash promises to be a very interesting one that the rugby world has not been treated too for some time, and Ireland will be quietly confident after what they just witnessed.

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