Losing is the new winning at the Rugby World Cup. Or at least, it seems that way after the eventual winners in both 2019 and 2023, South Africa, began by dropping a game at the group stage of both tournaments. Four years ago, the Springboks were beaten 23-13 by the All Blacks in the first match of pool B in Yokohama. Six weeks later, Siya Kolisi was lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in the same stadium after a definitive victory over England.
Fast forward to the same situation in 2023 – almost to the day – and the Bokke lost to Ireland 13-8 in the same fateful pool B, then progressed to a final in which they overcame their most ancient rivals by one single point. These remain the only two occasions on which any nation has dropped a game and gone on to win the competition.
The loss to Ireland was full-blooded and ferocious. Neither side gave any quarter, and both sets of players remained on the field when the fog of war had cleared – bloodied but unbowed. Yet it raised questions about whether South Africa had used the defeat to plot an easier route to the final, a path travelling via France rather than New Zealand. Sharks owner Marco Masotti claimed it ‘felt like a practice game’, providing further evidence of Rassie Erasmus’ ‘out-of-the-box thinking’.
Ex-All Black fly-half and famous whitebait fisherman Stephen Donald went further, suggesting on SENZ radio that: “Deep down, would you ever put it past the South Africans to go, ‘Do we want the All Blacks in a quarter-final? I think we take this route’…”
That was more than enough to light the touchpaper on social media. The Boks were experimenting with a 7-1 bench split and an open-side flanker (the Stormers’ Deon Fourie) as their substitute hooker, and Manie Libbok and Faf de Klerk as their front-line goalkickers. They left 11 points on the field via missed kicks.
The theories proliferated like a car with no brakes, careering out of control. Somehow, the Boks were managing to be simultaneously full-on brutal, but not serious about winning the game. They just wanted to avoid the All Blacks in the quarter-final, a team they had routed 35-7 at Twickenham only a few weeks before. None of it really made sense.
Fourie played reserve hooker throughout the knockout stages, and he had an important role in a final in which he played all but three minutes. The ‘Irish evidence’ did not stop Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber starting Manie Libbok in either the quarter-final against France or the semi-final against England. The Bokke think tank was still employing the 7-1 split in the last match against the All Blacks.
The truth was simpler, and lay much closer to home. The rivalry between Ireland and South Africa is growing at an exponential rate, fuelled by the presence of both nations in the same domestic competition (the United Rugby Championship) and sharpened by two contrasting tactical approaches.
In fact, the men in green were the likeliest lads to beat the Boks at the 2023 World Cup – even if they had to play the same match again. Ireland won the past three international games between the two since 2017, and five of the last seven over the last decade. Over the first two URC seasons, the four Irish provinces have had the wood on the South African quartet: 22 wins to 13, with two draws. Both nations have won one title apiece, with the Stormers victorious in 2021-22 and Munster triumphant one year later. So far this season, the Irish foursome has won five of the first six encounters.
New Zealand and South Africa may have the history and the gilt-edged provenance, but Ireland and South Africa will be the noisy neighbours from now on, treading on each other’s toes and leaving little notes in the letterbox week in, week out in the jostle for ascendancy. South Africa’s inevitable entry to the Six Nations will only propel that rivalry into the stratosphere.
The key to the great fights lies in the classic contrast of styles and rugby attitudes. Ireland want to build phases, South Africa want to destroy them. Ireland want to draw South Africa into their web of attacking sophistication and breakdown expertise, South Africa want to dominate via their power in defence at scrum and maul, and grind the noses of the Emerald Islanders into the turf. It is a time-honoured recipe for tactical drama and to-and-fro excellence.
On the recent mini-tour of the Republic by Ireland’s so-called ‘fourth province’ Connacht, the inner dynamic of the match-up was open-source. The men from Galway overcame the Sharks by a single point (13-12) at King’s Park in round five, but were beaten by the Bulls at Loftus Versveld the following week, 53-27.
The Bulls epitomise much of what is so good about the game in South Africa. They are direct to the point of brutality at set-piece and on early carrying phases, but they are quite capable of building an offloading game around that directness.
South African sides know every opponent they play will look to commit an extra body or two to stop their weapon of choice, the driving maul from lineout, and they have developed a repertoire of moves off it once that commitment hardens, or reaches a tipping point. That is what happened in that extraordinary game at Twickenham between the Springboks and the All Blacks, before the World Cup ever started. When the Bokke could not go straight through the All Blacks’ lineout defence, they tested its fringes with profit, especially on the short side.
In this example, the Bulls realise the Irish defence is stacked to prevent a roll infield, to the open side, so their #2, #9 and #14 shift late to the narrow side, with three passes in, or just before contact springing Akker van der Merwe free to score in the corner.
The driving lineout is also the foundation for a series of ferocious one-out carries ‘around the corner’ to the wide side of the field.
Two bruising runs first up force an offside intervention by the Connacht defence on its own goal-line, and that costs the visitors a yellow card and a try on the next sequence of play.
In Ireland there is steady trickle-down of attacking IP ‘upwards’, from the provinces to the national side.
The first clip comes from the Bulls-Connacht game, the second from the encounter between Ireland and New Zealand in November 2021, but the attacking policy is identical. The shapes are fundamentally the same, with seamless interaction between forwards and backs, first and second lines of attack, and short passes from runners angled on to the inside shoulder of each defender.
Connacht even utilised the second touch, wraparound attack preached in the Leinster/Johnny Sexton gospel to spread the good word to the Blou Bulle defence from a kick return.
Irish attack is more about option-taking than raw power, or winning a succession of collisions. Build enough options into your offence and the defence will make mistakes – even if it is not steamrolled as often. In this case the Bulls’ #13 flies out on to the wrapping #10, leaving the Connacht #12 free to break underneath him.
The captivating appeal of Ireland versus South Africa encounters at all levels was showcased by a sequence early in the second period.
There are two deft attacking chips by Connacht fly-half Jack Carty, first to the right sideline to stretch the D ‘horizontally’, then in behind to create pressure ‘vertically’, and it brings the best out of the cussed Northern defence. After a spoil by Van der Merwe at the breakdown, the Bulls are quite willing and able to counter from deep in their own end, and offload their way to the try-line from 70m.
After the one-sided 96-17 thrashing of Italy by his All Blacks, New Zealand head coach Ian Foster compared the rout favourably to the titanic tussle between Ireland and South Africa: “You saw a different spectacle tonight and at some point, the world has got to decide which game it would rather watch.”
The rugby world is going to see many more encounters between Irish and South African sides in the coming years – at URC level, in the European Champions Cup, and potentially even in an expanded Six Nations tournament with the Springboks included.
It could turn out to be a rivalry for the ages. One thing is for sure, there will not be as many easy-beats as there were in the dying gasps of Super Rugby, during its giddy expansion to 18 teams. As one social media regular responded to ‘Fozzy’: “Mmm, what would I rather watch?
“Two titans throwing everything at each other and there’s just no way through and you don’t know what’s going to happen until the final whistle.
“One team throwing everything at another that offers no resistance and it’s all over after 20 mins.”