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FEATURE Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks

Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks
3 weeks ago

A smile never far from his lips, looking like he could lace back up and go another 80, Cameron Hanekom accepted his post-match accolade and laid out the South African manifesto. “This is our home,” he told Super Sport. “You don’t come here and mess around with us.”

As the outstanding Bulls No.8 did the media rounds, Leinster’s beaten, dejected players steeled themselves and made their way, applauding the pockets of Irish supporters that made the journey to Pretoria. For many, this was their first experience of a big game in South Africa. The likes of Tadhg Furlong and Jack Conan will have told them what was coming. It is only living through a storm, however, that gives you a full, robust appreciation of the wails and shudders.

There were statements made up, down and across Loftus Versfeld but the biggest – outside of some pulverising scrums – arrived in the final minutes. With 72 minutes gone, Leinster were 21 phases into a desperate attack. The Bulls had reduced Leinster recycles to treacle when Jordan Larmour found Caelan Doris, looking to get a front-foot carry deeper into the Bulls’ 22. Hanekom and Elrich Louw knew what was coming and teamed up to punish Doris, hosing him back several yards. Four Bulls steamed in to gobble back possession, Hanekom emerged and carried before Sergeal Petersen walloped a kick that had Ciarán Frawley touching down under his own posts. In the space of 25 seconds, Leinster had been repelled 80 metres.

Caelan Doris
Doris and his Leinster team-mates struggled to get their attack going in the face of the Bulls’ aggression (Photo Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

One wonders how many tough, brutal lessons Leinster are due before they finally get over the line again. Are they destined, like Rory McIlroy is enduring, to try again and again, only to find new, more heart-wrenching ways to miss out?

Back in the RTÉ studio, former Munster lock Donncha O’Callaghan and Leinster No.8 Jamie Heaslip were left to pick over the bones of Leinster’s latest crunch-time failure. Both men toured South Africa with the British and Lions in 2009, and started the famous, fog-shrouded win over the world champion Springboks, later that year, at Croke Park.

“Absolutely terrible performance, terrible result,” O’Callaghan observed, while Heaslip initially struggled to put into words how his former team had fallen short when it really mattered. Eventually, he found them and one line was hard to argue with – “A club side, essentially, beat an international side today.”

The big concern in Ireland, moving on from the double URC blow, is how this affects the senior players, heading into the tour to South Africa.

Anyone looking for Munster to lift Irish spirits were left disappointed as the reigning URC champs were beaten by Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park. While the Munster scrum, unlike poor Leinster, had the edge, the Scots targeted their lineout and deprived the hosts of that attacking platform. What the Bulls and Warriors both did was something Rassie Erasmus’ Boks will have taken keen note of. Both sides were intent on driving back ball-carriers with dominant hits and making hell of resulting breakdowns. Between them, they won 14 turnovers against the Irish provinces. The Boks will be looping back breakdown footage of Hanekom, Louw, Ruan Nortje and Rory Darge.

The big concern in Ireland, moving on from the double URC blow, is how this affects the senior players, heading into the tour to South Africa. In between semi-final defeats for the provinces, O’Callaghan declared, “Now, the whole of South Africa has jumped up and said, ‘Look what our Bulls team did against this national team’.”

Peter O'Mahony
Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony was also forced to stomach a URC semi-final loss, at home to Glasgow (Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Despite injuries to the likes of Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Steven Kitshoff, Jean Kleyn and Lood de Jager, Erasmus was able to name a Springboks squad teeming with World Cup winners. He also included uncapped prospects such as Sacha Feinberg-Mgomezulu, Quan Horn and Edwill van der Merwe, with several Bulls to come in after the URC final. Sprinkle in some of their stars like Hanekom, Louw, Nortje and Marco van Staden, with Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Ox Nche, Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard, and you get a sense of the challenge that awaits Ireland.

Andy Farrell had been urged to include some fresher faces and uncapped players in his touring squad. He is repeating his World Cup trick by going as strong and experienced as possible, with three uncapped players unlikely to make the match-day 23 for the first Test. Jamison Gibson-Park, Iain Henderson and Mack Hansen miss out through injury, Jack Conan (personal reasons) will not tour, and Hugo Keenan is chasing Olympic Sevens glory. Otherwise, Farrell’s squad is a hefty swing for the fences.

The South Africa migration from Super Rugby to the United Rugby Championship has given Irish sides a taste of what the Kiwis and Aussies had rammed up their nostrils for the guts of three decades.

Some in Ireland would have preferred if Farrell had left the likes of Cian Healy, Conor Murray, Rob Herring and even Bundee Aki and Gibson-Park (the over 30s, and beyond) to a summer off, but the head coach is not done with them yet. If he can eek another season of service from them, he wants them in place when he goes on his Lions coaching sabbatical.

With Conan missing out, the likes of David McCann, John Hodnett and Gavin Coombes must have come up in conversation, but it is Nick Timoney, Ryan Baird and Cormac Izuchukwu that will back up the mainstays, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris. The emergence of Izuchukwu, all six-foot-seven and well over 18-stone of him, at Ulster, this season has encouraged Farrell to take a flyer and bring him south.

Cormac Izuchukwu
Ulster flanker Cormac Izuchukwu is one of the fresh faces in an experienced Ireland tour squad (Photo Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The South Africa migration from Super Rugby to the United Rugby Championship has given Irish sides a taste of what the Kiwis and Aussies had rammed up their nostrils for the guts of three decades. Not all the franchises are dangerous on the road, but each one is a different brute at home. Bulls and Stormers, the leading South African sides in this season’s URC, had combined home records of 21 wins and just three losses, in league and Champions Cup matches. Sharks targeted the Challenge Cup and won all four of their home ties, en route to winning the tournament.

For all the quivering back in Ireland about the provinces falling short and not having that punching power, it is worth revisiting their last summer tour. Back in 2022, Munster fell at the URC’s last eight, Ulster were agonisingly pipped by Stormers in a semi-final and Bulls shocked a highly-touted Leinster side at The RDS. In the Champions Cup, Leinster ran out of gas, and tackles, as Arthur Retière stretched out and snatched the final for La Rochelle. In that game, the considerable bulk of Will Skelton, Uini Atonio and Joel Sclavi was pointed to as crucial in wearing Leinster down, and out.

South Africa feel they have the capacity to dig much deeper than Ireland, and endure more hardship. They can get over the line when the clocking is heading red and everything is on the line.

Erasmus will feel he has Ireland figured out and the tough talk has already begun – Damien De Allende is tapping into being ‘disrespected’ after his team were thumped 38-3 by Ireland, in 2017. Erasmus will be poring through Off The Ball clips, in the coming days, to see what other gems the Irish hosts and pundits may throw out. Chum for sharks.

South Africa feel they have the capacity to dig much deeper than Ireland, and endure more hardship. They can get over the line when the clocking is heading red and everything is on the line. The have the World Cups and a Lions Test Series win to feed that mentality. Recent history, though, provides a valuable lesson in Irish resilience.

James Lowe
Ireland recovered from losing the first Test to win a three-match series in New Zealand two years ago (Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

What followed Irish rugby’s punishing 2021-22 club season was a daunting five-match tour to New Zealand, which included a three-Test series. Former Ireland centre Darren Cave vocalised the dread many in Ireland felt when he declared, “We could lose all five games.” He was on track after the first two tour matches – Ireland lost the first Test at Eden Park and their midweek side fell to the Maori All Blacks. Farrell’s men rallied, though, avenging that Maoris defeat and winning their first, and second, ever Test match on New Zealand soil to claim a historic series.

These Irish players have an extra edge under Farrell, and a bolder team in attack. The biggest loss – as Leinster know all too well – is Johnny Sexton, and he may never be fully replaced. In Jack Crowley, however, they have a guy in the 10 jersey that has stood up to some fierce tests, in Munster red, while in South Africa and a red-hot centre in Aki. Add them to that Leinster core, with O’Mahony digging deep again, Tadhg Beirne digging for turnovers,  and we have the odds pushing closer to 60/40, albeit in the Boks’ favour.


Albert 22 days ago

The Irish rely on their system and run big teams close and also in recent years been beating the top teams.

Boks will need to prove their no 1 status, many Irish still believe they are the best since they have been beating SA in the last three encounters.

Exciting, the two highest ranked teams meeting up and both out to prove who is the best🤩🤩

🇮🇪🇿🇦🏉 🇮🇪🇿🇦

Bull Shark 22 days ago

I don’t think the Loftus game will be close. Quite happy to be called an overconfident, arrogant Saffer. But I expect the Boks at Loftus will be too much for this Ireland team that seems to be getting worse, not better.

And now missing a key player in Gibson Park.

Durban might run closer. But think the Boks will make it quite clear why they’re number one and world champions. In front of very happy fans, at home.

Flankly 23 days ago

The Bok kryptonite is complacency.

How did they lose to Japan in 2015, or to Italy in 2016? There are plenty of less dramatic examples. They often boil down to the Boks dialing back their focus and intensity, presuming they can win with less than 100% commitment.

This can be true of most teams, but there is a reason that the Boks are prone to it. It boils down to the Bok game plan being predicated on intensity. The game plan works because of the relentless and suffocating pressure that they apply. They don’t allow the opponent to control the game, and they pounce on any mistake. It works fantastically, but it is extremely demanding on the Bok players to pull it off. And the problem is that it stops working if you execute at anything less than full throttle. Complacency kills the Boks because it can lead to them playing at 97% and getting embarrassed.

So the Bulls/Leinster result is dangerous. It’s exactly what is needed to introduce that hint of over-confidence. Rassie needs to remind the team of the RWC pool game, and of the fact that Ireland have won 8 of the 12 games between the teams in the last 20 years.

And of course the Leinster result also means that Ireland have a point to prove. Comments like “a club team beating a test team” will be pasted on the changing room walls. They will be out to prove that the result of the RWC game truly reflects the pecking order between the teams.

The Boks can win these games, but, as always, they need to avoid the kryptonite.

Shaylen 23 days ago

The series will no doubt be hard fought and Ireland have the game to hurt SA. I expect it will be very very close indeed

PDV 23 days ago

Doubt anyone in South Africa, from the players to the supporters, expect this to be an easy series. Much will depend on how quickly the Boks can shake off any rustiness and get used to tweaks to their defensive and attacking strategies implemented by the new coaching staff.

Lou Cifer 23 days ago

on the day it is 50/50 as always and with the recent injuries to JGP & non-availability of Conan/Hansen/Keenan it evens out with all the recent Bok injuries too.

IMO it’ll still be an extremely tight little series coming down to the last few mins in each match, as there is just too much pride at stake on both sides.

Jimmy 23 days ago

Players are different animals when they don the national jersey. I have no doubt that both tests will go down to the wire.

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