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FEATURE Boks sail close to the wind as Irish resources face further test

Boks sail close to the wind as Irish resources face further test
1 week ago

Tuesday 7.30am in a suburban gym in Clontarf, north Dublin. It feels less like a workstation for fitness freaks than a men’s shed with a bit of tin thrown in, and the threat of a painful spin on the assault bike. This particular class comprises five men of a certain age, nudged and cajoled by a fit young S&C professional who is learning patience the hard way. Not easy for that lad.

You have to feel for him occasionally. He’s trying to move us on to the next chore but the conversation is in full flow. Sometimes it’s unfettered abuse for one of the group who has taken a shortcut (me); other times it’s the greatest scourge known to mankind: golf talk. Dealing with this group is like herding cats.

On this occasion rugby was top of the agenda, a deep dive into what happened in Pretoria, and what’s likely to unfold in Durban. These natives were more angry than restless at how the Test series lost one of its possible outcomes – an Irish win – and the role played by the team of match officials. The laws of libel preclude sharing detail on their complaints, but you can guess the ground covered.

Rassie Erasmus
Rassie Erasmus endured a rollercoaster of emotions in the coach’s box as his side came close to losing a winning position (Photo Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images)

The only safe conclusion you could draw from it was that when referee Luke Pearce pulled the curtain down on a compelling Test match no-one was happy: Andy Farrell had the hump with the same officials as well as some of his own team for making their own life harder; Rassie Erasmus surely was livid that but for a dodgy call the team with all the aces would have dropped their cards and lost to Ireland for an unthinkable fourth time running. And of course the lads in the gym were very, very unhappy. Again.

Let’s start with Erasmus. The adoption of Tony Brown by the Bokke family has the potential of a match made in rugby heaven. The only thing that could go wrong is the divvy up of time, space and domestic duties. Distil it to this: kitchen chores are shared but Rassie puts the bins out while Tony decides on the colour scheme for the living room.

In his time with Japan the Kiwi did a first-class job in giving relative lightweights a leg up through a raft of creative plays delivered at high speed. He alluded to the success of that group being in part down to his relationship with head coach Jamie Joseph. In their playing days one was a creator while the other was a destroyer. They complemented each other perfectly.

In choosing the top-class kicker Handré Pollard they were travelling the sensible route, only for Pollard to punch the wrong address into the sat nav and end up in the middle of nowhere.

Like Joseph, Erasmus served some time as a short-side stopper, albeit with the look of a 400m runner who had a kitbag full of ideas, and more than a little flair. In nailing down Brown, the boykie from Despatch, as he styles himself, knew exactly what he was getting. So it would be crazy not to give him the room to move. The first Test illustrated Brown has the run of the house and garden.

Factor in Jerry Flannery and you have a diverse, rich cultural mix: three men of different nationalities who have all learned a heap from working at club and international levels in other countries as well as their own.

In his truncated time at Munster, Erasmus developed a very close working relationship with his assistants. We didn’t expect two of them – Flannery and Felix Jones – to follow him separately to South Africa, but in addition to his own time in Limerick it has given the Boks’ boss a very good insight into what Ireland are all about.

Tony Brown
Tony Brown’s arrival as assistant coach is likely to give a new dimension to South Africa’s attack (Photo by Phill Magakoe/ AFP via Getty Images)

So when James Lowe scuttled down the touchline to score with just over 20 minutes left in Loftus last Saturday, the South Africa coach would have had a pretty good handle on its turbo boost for Farrell’s team. If that score stood then the game was turned on its head. You couldn’t roll with the punches for as long as Ireland had done, and then suddenly, mercifully, see your opponent take on a glazed look, and not infer you had dodged a bullet and it was your time to fire. This Ireland squad have enough experience of straitjackets to recognise when one is coming undone. Victory in those circumstances would have been sharing space with their greatest one-off achievements of the pro era.

That flipside for South Africa would have been horrendous, and not without irony. In choosing the top-class kicker Handré Pollard they were travelling the sensible route, only for Pollard to punch the wrong address into the sat nav and end up in the middle of nowhere. Imagine if they could ready-up a goalkicker outside the 10 shirt, leaving Brown free to get his hands on Manie Libbok without worrying about who would kick the ball over the bar?

If we had another episode of a fly-on-the wall documentary in the South Africa camp this week it would feature Rassie having a conniption.

That combination of crazily good athletes and a handful of scary monsters, with a master key that could unlock most defences, would already have the Boks on the road to a record three World Cups on the spin.

Surely the conundrum is not about them playing with width – they are well able to do that – rather it’s about playing for long bursts at high tempo. The Saffers are well practised in taking breaks as and when demanded by the lung department. How much time for example does Eben Etzebeth spend on his rear end, strapping his boots like they’ve served him well but sadly are losing their sole? It’s a wonder the DJ – sweet Jesus how those fellas devalue the rugby product – doesn’t throw Kenny Rogers’ Lucille on the decks.

If we had another episode of a fly-on-the wall documentary in the South Africa camp this week it would feature Rassie having a conniption. He would have a lorry load of examples of how close his men sailed to the wind in Pretoria. Not acceptable. Come Saturday in King’s Park he will demand another flyer out of the blocks, followed by steady business on the scoreboard until the tourists are so battered they can’t even make out the numbers.

James Lowe
James Lowe’s disallowed try – after a TMO intervention – left Andy Farrell unhappy (Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

We wonder about Farrell’s demeanour behind the scenes. We understand the anger at the contestable calls, and admire his restrained way of sharing that emotion in public, post-match, but was his nose really that far out of joint at the way his team played? Yes, throwing open the door to the Irish line with a dodgy defensive read was a bad start, but their ability to stay upright and swinging going into the last round was remarkable, given the depth of resources.

There is a world of difference in the trust Erasmus has for his front rowers and Farrell’s equivalent position. The combination of Dan Sheehan, Ronan Kelleher and Rob Herring would give any coach comfort setting off on a tough tour at the end of a long season. So while Sheehan is a huge loss for the next nine to 12 months, there is reassurance in the back-up.

Contrast that with prop forward. It was alarming the speed with which Andrew Porter returned to the fray with a horribly injured hand that clearly was causing him a lot of grief on the way off. It’s understood he underwent a minor procedure in Johannesburg after the game to reattach skin torn around the base of his little finger.

Andrew Porter
The state of Andrew Porter’s right hand was a cause of concern for Ireland this week (Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Giving Cian Healy anything beyond tail-end minutes was never part of the plan, so Porter – a horse of a man – had to get back in the race. Healy is now a 130 caps legend. What started at Test level in 2009 was probably at its peak through 2018 when, despite coming back from a neck injury that left him with nerve damage, he had the edge over Lion Jack McGrath with Leinster and Ireland. A Grand Slam, a summer Test series win in Australia and then victory over New Zealand in November, with a Heineken Cup medal for Leinster thrown in – he was the go-to man in his prime.

With a system as small as Ireland’s it’s hard to cover all the bases, but you don’t get a handicapped start at Test level. It’s just a handicap.

Healy is well past it now however. Bringing him as the next in line to Porter is a risk that could blow up if he was forced to play 70 minutes instead of 10. Conor Murray’s service too has been gold standard, but if Ireland’s depth chart at scrum-half was functional he wouldn’t be on this trip, and Caolin Blade, on the bench for Saturday, but overlooked for years, would have been a contender instead of a bag holder.

With a system as small as Ireland’s it’s hard to cover all the bases, but you don’t get a handicapped start at Test level. It’s just a handicap. Nowhere is it felt more acutely than on a summer tour to either New Zealand or South Africa where you need depth of quality to survive. It’s like putting our gym class under the pump when we’d rather be on the couch with the remote in one hand and a beverage of some sort in the other. You have to lift what you can lift. It’s what it says on the tin.


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Theo 10 days ago

One thing nobody remembered. It was the Springbok’s first match since the world cup.

Willem 10 days ago

Handre Pollard don't miss in WC but have an average kicking ranking between WC. As much as we love him here in SA, I don't think he is the right flyhalf for the attacking style that the Boks wants to play. He was just way too slow in decision making and spreading the ball. Nohamba of the Lions or Libbock is a better choice, even Siya Feinberg Mngomezulu. Wilco Louw should be upfront. He destroyed the Irish front 3 during the semis of the URC, same as he did to the other teams. Rassie is missing a trick there. Hanekom is a better choice than Kwagga Smith as a starter too. Kwagga is an impact player

Senzo Cicero 11 days ago

Springbok attack fell apart after bomb squad arrived, horribly disjointed, easy turnovers for Irish defense. They lost momentum and control over the game and it nearly cost them. That will improve over time.

Not sure Durban is the right place to be expansive, expect a lot of kicking with Murray on the pitch as well.

Irish seem happy enough just surviving in the contest as long as possible and try and nick a win at the death.. works for Munster anyways.

Bull Shark 11 days ago

Pollard had a poor game. He’ll be better. The boks had lapses in defence in the second half in particular that they will not be happy about.

Those two things firing on Saturday - a long day at the office for Ireland who looked nowhere in the first half.

The boks pulled off an unpolished version of the plan at Loftus. Attempt 2 will be better.

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