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FEATURE How Ireland outplayed South Africa to claim ‘the Battle of the Giants’

How Ireland outplayed South Africa to claim ‘the Battle of the Giants’
8 months ago

Don’t listen to those who tell you that rugby is still basically the same game that it ever was. They are wrong. Purely in terms of the balance between the ruck and the scrum or lineout, the game has been turned on its head – and all the old money has fallen out of its pockets in the shaking.

Roll the clock back to the 1970s, all the way back to the day of the amateur, and the ratio of set-piece to breakdown was approximately three-to-two in favour of scrum and lineout. Go back even further, to the Scotland versus Wales match at Murrayfield in 1963, and a bit of basic rugby archaeology will unearth a world-record 111 lineouts and 38 scrums, in the era before kicking straight into touch outside the 22m area was restricted by law.

The mercurial Newport pivot Dai Watkins, playing outside-half for Wales on that icy afternoon in Edinburgh, had to be content watching the plumes of his breath curling up into the frozen air. He did not have much else to do, because he only touched the ball five times in the entire game: “once to collect the Scottish kick-off, twice to pick up their grub-kicks ahead, and twice only to catch passes from my scrum-half”.

Since then, the physical contests have moved steadily outwards, into open field.  At the first World Cup in 1987, there were an average of 77 set-pieces to 50 rucks; on the cusp of professionalism in 1995, the balance was starting to change in favour of the breakdown – an average of 60 set-pieces to 76 rucks per game. 20 years later, at the 2015 World Cup in the UK, the ratio had shifted to over 4:1, with 166 rucks per game set compared to a mere 39 set-pieces.

While domination of the set-piece is still important, control of the breakdown counts for even more in the modern game. The popular supposition, or rather superstition touted before the Clash of the Titans between South Africa and Ireland in Paris, was that a low ball-in-play time and a higher proportion of set-pieces would suit the Springboks.

A titanic battle took place between Ireland and South Africa at the Stade de France on Saturday night. (Photo by PA Images)

In the event, the Boks got what they thought they wanted – a ball-in-play time of under 30 minutes (five minutes below the Test average and a massive 16 minutes less than the epic Six Nations decider between France and Ireland in Dublin), and 41 set-pieces compared to 145 rucks, which is about as good as it gets at this level for side which wants a stop-start, set-piece grind.

The men in green lost six of their own lineout throws for a meagre 67 per cent return and they also lost three scrums to penalty, but ultimately it made no difference, because their domination of proceedings at the tackle area and in ruck defence was even more complete.

When South Africa had the pill, Ireland achieved ten turnovers at the post-tackle and forced another five fumbles in contact. The stats were especially gruesome in the final quarter of the game, with the Springboks haemorrhaging six turnovers in the those 20 minutes. South Africa leaked no fewer than seven total penalties at the breakdown, and that gave Ireland a foothold in the land-grab for territory.

While the South African blitz defence tends to attract most of the column inches in the media, Ireland’s more restrained version was been quietly been proving itself the equal of the Irish offence, away from the spotlight. That is no mean feat. At the 2023 Six Nations, Andy Farrell’s charges only gave up six tries in five matches, and a measly average of 14.4 points per game. Excellence is balanced and all-around.

In the coruscating climax of Pool B at a quaking Stade de France, Ireland’s turnovers were spread across six different positions on the field ranging from hooker Dan Sheehan to left wing James Lowe. They came from three backs and three forwards, and from a trio of different pilfering varieties, ranging from high choke turnovers to ground-hogging jackals, with a couple of collective counter-rucks thrown in for good measure. Excellence is balanced and all-around.

We’ve gotten very good at not getting too emotional, making sure that we stay on task.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell

Farrell’s players were able to match and surpass the Springboks in a game played out largely on South African terms.

“I think as the competition goes on, we’ll need to be better because, you know, there’s a few inaccuracies,” he said after the match. “But there is always going to be that type of thing with games like this, especially with the pressure that South Africa put on you.

“We again were able to find a way – and when you say it was an emotional game and how do we bottle that? [The answer is] we’ve gotten very good at not getting too emotional, making sure that we stay on task.

“So, being given a game like that within the pool stage is great for us.”

Ireland began by establishing that they could take on the South African power ball-carriers up high. Why was this important? It showed that the Springboks’ desire to gain extra metres through contact, without going to ground early, could be turned against them:


The zone around the end of the lineout used to be manned by Johnny Sexton (who has always been a high tackler) and hooker Rory Best, and it always was a no-go area for opposing teams with their runners liable to be choked and turned over by the Ireland No 2 and No 10. In this case Ronan Kelleher does a passable impersonation of the Ulsterman, and the struggle South Africa experiences in peeling away the tacklers from Siya Kolisi eventually leaves the ball exposed for Tadhg Beirne (in the blue cap) to pick up, unopposed:

The cleanout by the two Springboks props is utterly spent by the time Beirne dips down to take possession of the pill.

Even the biggest Bok on the field, second-rower Eben Etzebeth, could not escape from the physical imprint left by the precise and varied tackling techniques of their opponents:



The tackling is carefully tailored to the target. The Irish defence focuses on quickly bringing down No 8 Jasper Wiese, who has a low centre of gravity, with a low chop tackle in the first instance. The choke is reserved for the huge Springbok lock, who tends to ride much taller in the saddle, looking for the offload.

‘Heart in the oven, head in the fridge’ goes the saying for the management of critical moment in all contact sports. The same cool analytical approach was in evidence when Wiese received the ball after a wide Springbok attack from scrum late in the first period:


Ireland pull out of a losing contest at the first ruck against Kolbe, so that they have all fifteen players on their feet for the next phase against the burly Springboks number 8, with Garry Ringrose and Caelan Doris cutting him down to size early for Josh van der Flier to reap the reward on the pilfer.

In the final ten minutes Ireland concentrated increasingly on the counter-ruck with the Springboks’ cleanout beginning to tire:



In the first instance, No 22 Kwagga Smith has his head down and he is not scanning any of his opponents after the ball has been won, and that is the trigger for Doris to boulder him off the cleanout and lead a winning counter-ruck. In the second example, one big Irishman (No 19 Iain Henderson) is enough to brush off two smaller Springboks (flyhalf Manie Libbok and bench hooker Deon Fourie) and create another turnover in the South African 22. Ireland sat on that position for long enough to earn three points from the most crucial scrum penalty of the game.

Ireland will probably have learned the most positive lessons from the most intense and physical contest of the tournament so far. They will be rightly chuffed with their domination of the breakdown, which eventually outweighed South Africa’s early obliteration of the Irish lineout.

With regular hooker Dan Sheehan getting back to full fitness, the fixes will be ready to hand. Meanwhile Andy Farrell’s men proved to themselves, and the doubting Thomases in the media, that they can win in a low ball-in-play, stop-start slugfest where their attacking quality is not the deciding factor.

It is the shifts in the modern game which enabled them to do it:

Per Stats Perform, “During the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Maro Itoje’s total of 66 rucks [cleaned out] against New Zealand in the semi-final was the most any player made in a match at the tournament. His individual effort was more than the average of both teams combined during an entire game in 1987 and 1991, and greater than the average number of rucks made by individual teams in both 1995 and 1999.”

For South Africa, there are much more pressing problems to be resolved. The gamble taken on Malcolm Marx’s replacement on a 7-1 bench by a natural loose forward in Deon Fourie did not work. The Stormers No 7 missed on one lineout throw close to the Irish goal-line and twice mistimed the ‘set’, leading his props in early at scrum-time.

The selection of the man for whom a like-for-like squad replacement for Marx was sacrificed, Handre Pollard, will also provoke fierce debate. Pollard may kick goals better than either Faf de Klerk or Manie Libbok, but he will never have the same sinuous attacking rapport that Libbok enjoys with fellow Western Province playmaker Damian Willemse.

That’s enough to give both Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber headaches as the competition progresses to the knockout stages. When the Irish supporters gave a rousing rendition of the Cranberries’ song ‘Zombie’ after the final whistle, it was in the knowledge that their men currently have the coolest heads in the room, even when the heart is jumping against the rib-cage: ‘What’s in your head, in your head?’ – that will be the overarching question as doomsday approaches.


Harry 267 days ago

I found it a privilege to be there, even in a sea of pale Irish green, to watch the intensity of this close match. Not a soul around me knew what would happen as the forwards went to that last fateful lineout: a rarity in this Cup so far. Deon Fourie's throw found safe hands and five became two metres with the clock in the red. I do not think the gentle giant next to me from Cork could breathe and it was the oddest kind of quiet in the stadium, as if we were ALL zombies in search of rebirth. Then, a verdict, and the most common statement I was told (perhaps just to be polite?) was some form of "see you in the final." What a Test! Enjoyed the read, Nick.

Francisco 269 days ago

Incredible match Nick...! I must revisit him this week, without a doubt, because he has left more questions than answers. My focus today is 100% on Los Pumas.

bob 269 days ago

A great game. Worthy of a World Cup status after we have endured the big guns crunching minnows by 60 to 90 points
Very little in it and besides their kicking fiasco the Saffers made too many mistakes and left too many chances go begging.
They will still be a team to be reckoned with if they make it through.
By the way I like Argentina and Scotland.
You don’t have to win this thing to be proud.

Tom 269 days ago

Great read Nick, and a great game. Imagine a rematch! One thing that's great about the Irish team is the way they engage the ref: forwards seeming to look for feedback and acknowledgement on borderline plays. What a team, what a crowd. Boks will feel they did enough not to worry the confidence levels for round 2 if that eventuates, not that I imagine confidence is much of an issue for them.

Shaylen 270 days ago

Great article Nick. Ireland were really fantastic at the breakdown. They really are a beautiful team all round. They have players across the park who are so good at the breakdown from backs to forwards because they have trained that way for the last 4 years right through the URC to international rugby. Even Connacht in the URC are so good at the all round play which shows the synergy in the system. Ireland are able to win these slugfests now because they have to slug these out in the URC as well. Stormers vs Munster final was another slug fest and it went similarly in a tight and intense contest. The SA and Ireland rivalry is growing so strong now its mouth watering. The Boks made more than 100metres more than Ireland in that game which shows the Libbok effect. Kicking is a real headache for them though and Pollard for Libbok may fix the kicking but might give up the metres. Fourie at the scrum was just a failure. Normally the Springboks are so superior in that area in the last 20 with a world class front 3 coming on. This time they could barely manage and the pack looked disjointed. Springboks need to answer these questions if they are to win the World Cup

pof 270 days ago

Good analysis.

This game could have gone either way right up to the final whistle. The Boks lost, so the emphasis afterwards is on everything they need to fix. But in reality, Ireland have just as much to work on if they want to win the WC.

Gerald 270 days ago

Really like the mature way Nick answers the comments made by us general nobodies. 🙌

Mitch 270 days ago

Ireland handled the physical onslaught of the 7-1 bench split really well, with Snyman and Nche the only Bok forward reinforcements to make a positive impact.

Ireland also did well to ensure the lineout woes didn't last much longer than the first 20 minutes or so.

Is it just me or was there more than a hint of obstruction from Kriel in the build up to Kolbe's try?

Pollard probably kicks the goals Libbok missed but the Boks lose something on attack with no Libbok at flyhalf. That's a fair old headache for their official and unofficial head coach but at least they're still in the World Cup.....

Highlander 270 days ago

Really good Nick, add in Ireland with an ave ruck speed of 4.8ish then just about every stat would have led to an SA victory - amazing they couldnt close. Ireland points per 22 entry wasnt great either - yet they still got it done
SA had 2 new fetchers on in those latter stages but as we have seen before, they got cleaned out as the game stretched.
I took this as serious upside available to Ireland.

rory 270 days ago

Good article and South Africa lost this more than Ireland won it. You can't miss so many opportunities. Boks achieved one goal of taking Ireland out of their phase game. But at the end Ireland did enough to win, especially at the breakdown. Congrats. One point, which is starting to get annoying. The comments of the Deon Fourie didn't work. The article (and others) reference the 1 missed throw as the reason it didn't work. Let's take an all round look. Ireland lost their first 4 lineouts. Where are the comments about their hooker been poor? Bongi had 1 skew throw. We didn't lose a scrum because of Fourie at hook - we had a penalty for early engagement. I wish journalists could be more objective and look at the whole game before making sweeping comments. Yes, I am a bok fan.

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