Australian Test referee Nic Berry, who was left distressed at a video “character assassination” from Rassie Erasmus, has got an apology from the South African director of rugby.
Going into this match, there was a sense of optimism in the air as far as the Springboks were concerned.
The Heyneke Meyer era was consigned to the history books, and Allister Coetzee was going to usher in a new era of Springboks.
His squad selection was also promising, with a firm focus on the future and not on Europe-based stars, although a few people still felt that the Western Province representation was too high and not justified.
Yet the form of the Lions in Super Rugby and presence of Faf de Klerk, Elton Jantjies, Jaco Kriel, Warren Whiteley and Lionel Mapoe in the squad was promising.
Ireland were also reeling from injuries to numerous key players, including Jonny Sexton. They had never won in South Africa and were expected to be competitive at best. Yet at the end of the 80 minutes, Ireland were the ones celebrating a historic result, while South Africa were stunned, not just by the quality of the Irish performance, but by the ineptitude of their own.
When you play 60 minutes against a team with at least one man down and score only two tries, one of which was an intercept and another having a possible obstruction involved, there really is nowhere to hide.
This was, unfortunately, just one of a series of disappointing results in the past 18 months or so for South African rugby. Yes, they finished third in the World Cup, but when you’re the Springboks, you have a certain level of expectation from the team.
Defeats to Wales, Argentina, Japan and Ireland are unacceptable at best, unfathomable at worst. And the nature of this defeat makes it fall a bit on the unfathomable side.
The pre-red card game
As it happened, the first 20 minutes of the match, before the big decision, were not the brightest for the Springboks either. The very first play of the match, the kickoff, resulted in a penalty to Ireland as JP Pietersen took out Devin Toner in the air.
It was a sign of things to come as South Africa gave away close to ten penalties inside the first ten minutes. Ireland’s start was bright, but that was as much down to their own play as the Boks’ indiscipline giving them the chance to attack.
The culmination of it all was a well-taken try to the impressive Jared Payne. After a rolling maul near the Boks’ five-metre line was collapsed by Lood De Jager (for which he would correctly get sin-binned), Ireland spun the ball to the centre of the field to Luke Marshall.
He in turn identified the space in behind the line (South Africa did not have a sweeper covering) and put a grubber through, nutmegging Damian de Allende in a way Lionel Messi would have been proud of, and the Irish backs, who had also no doubt seen the space and anticipated the kick, followed up, with the Kiwi from Ulster getting there first.
A just reward for their good start and the alarm bells should have been ringing in the Bok coaches’ box.
The big call
But of course, the whole dynamic of the game changed once the red card happened. About 20 metres from halfway, Pat Lambie chipped the Irish rush defence in a hope to spark the Springbok attack. However, he caught the full force of blindside CJ Stander’s hip right on the chin, and was out cold before he could even hit the floor.
It was a sickening thud, and somehow referee Mathieu Reynal allowed play to go on for five to six more phases before calling time off. On consultation with the TMO, Stander was sent off.
Now was it a red? This was one of those that go both ways – if he is given the red, you will have debate about whether it should have been a yellow. If he was simply sin-binned, there would have been calls for it to have been a red. You cannot escape the controversy.
I felt it was less malicious and more reckless on the part of Stander, who is not a dirty player at all. After he had committed, he could not get out of the way, and it was just an unfortunate clash.
But should it have been a yellow? Well, after Lambie got knocked out, this was only going to end in a red card. While the refs were mulling the decision over during the replays, I muttered to myself that this could be a red. So it was an expected decision.
It was just a shame that it happened to CJ Stander; it was an emotional game for the South African, whose entire family had come down to Cape Town to watch the match.
And while the decision’s impact on the game was less controversial as Ireland ended up winning anyway, the implications for the rest of the series could be significant, as Stander has been banned for a week, meaning he will miss the second Test.
Now that Ireland were a man down, the onus was on the rest of the players to step up in defence and attack. And the responsibility on one man was more than most, even before the game began. Jonathan Sexton is Ireland’s talisman, the leader of their attack, and the defensive marshal. His play is vital to Ireland’s fortunes, and so when he was ruled out of the series, people expected Ireland to crumble. His replacement had other ideas, though.
Paddy Jackson has been growing into a mature fly-half over the past two seasons, and his performances for Ulster this season have seen him rise up the pecking order above fellow understudy Ian Madigan. And boy did he earn his stripes on Saturday.
Two aspects of his play stood out from the rest – his kicking out of hand, and his defence. Ireland won the kicking battle as a whole on Saturday, and to underline just how territorially dominant they were, here’s a stat I saw on TV – South Africa’s time in the Irish 22 in the second half was just one minute and 12 seconds. Ireland kicked 34 times out of hand, with Jackson, Conor Murray and Marshall doing most of the kicking.
Also, he was involved in nearly every one of the numerous scramble tackles that Ireland had to make as South Africa attempted to just outflank the depleted Irish defence.
Now the Boks did not really do a good job of that as they were simply too lateral in the attack and at least three attacks ended up with Willie le Roux simply passing to either winger who was totally cramped out of space. It was poor attack, but it was courageous defence too.
South Africa also had a much bigger centre pairing compared to the Irish and really wanted to attack the Irish No.10-12 combination. But both Jackson and Luke Marshall stood up to them each time, and thus negated them entirely from the match. Debutant Lionel Mapoe was especially anonymous.
A Louw-key presence
Heading into the series with a raft of injuries, especially in the back row to players like Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier, Ireland were expected to be outplayed on the floor by the Boks’ Duane Vermeulen and especially Francois Louw. Louw was tipped by many to have a field day and his breakdown presence was going to hand the South Africans the upper hand.
Yet by the 70th minute, Louw had made one turnover, and that was the only one of the match for South Africa. Ireland had made seven. It was an astonishingly sub-par performance from the Bath openside, and in an area that the Boks were expected to dominate, this stat would no doubt have hurt.
The Irish also outplayed the Springboks in other aspects of the forward pack, including scrummaging and mauling, which is again incredible considering they had winger Andrew Trimble filling in for CJ Stander after his expulsion, and had one forward less to maul with. It just underlined the difference between the two teams.
The red card has been spoken about before, but another huge event which could have been a turning point for the worse (from an Irish perspective) was the yellow card to Robbie Henshaw after the try to Lwazi Mvovo. What followed was less of a crucial moment and more of a crucial period of ten minutes with 13 men, from which Ireland escaped unscathed, and in fact in a better position than before.
After the red card, Ireland were rattled. They conceded penalties, Jackson put a kickoff out on the full, Ireland gave away scrum penalties and free kicks, and were overall under the cosh. This just got worse when Elton Jantjies put Mvovo through to score the Boks’ first try, and you would have been forgiven for thinking the floodgates were about to open.
To make things worse, Henshaw was (correctly) si- binned for a late hit on Jantjies as the fly-half passed inside to Mvovo, and while Ireland felt that De Allende had obstructed Marshall (it was a bit like the Rory Arnold-Luther Burrell incident, without Marshall throwing his arms up in the air like Burrell) the try stood, and Ireland were down to 13 men.
This meant that Ireland had to be extremely careful with regards to defensive rucks, as even committing two players would leave them with just 11 players in the defensive line. It was a precarious position. However, not only did they weather the storm, they actually won that sin-binning period 3-0, due to an opportunistic Jackson drop goal. This was the first step towards victory, as it sent a shockwave through the Boks, and endowed Ireland with an added belief that they still weren’t out of the game.
And as in the previous two matches, the last play before half-time was crucial again. And this time it was brilliant scrambling defence, and it has to be said, uninspired attack from the Boks, that resulted in Mvovo and Louw somehow failing to convert an overlap as they ran out of space on the left touchline. This kept the score 13-13 at the break.
And as soon as they were restored to 14 men, Ireland’s next crucial moment came.
Firstly, they had a great rolling maul which took them to the Bok 22, then they went down the short side with the excellent Jared Payne standing down Adriaan Strauss and offloading Sonny Bill style to Trimble. The winger cut infield, and off the next phase, Murray saw that the defence around the fringes of the ruck was sparse, and darted into the gap.
Eben Etzebeth’s tackle was too high, and Murray wriggled free to score. Ireland were 20-13 in the lead, and never relinquished it.
The final crucial moment came right at the end, when the box-kick-happy Murray had a bit of a brain snap and kicked the ball away with only a minute left. This could have been a real coach-killer, and more than a few Irishmen were having images of Ryan Crotty flash through their minds. Just why did he kick it away, only he knows, and it seemed for a moment that he would rue that decision as Le Roux put Pietersen in space for the first time in the match.
The Sharks winger had around 15 metres of open field to make a dash for, but for some reason decided to move a foot or so infield. He was welcomed by four desperate Irishmen, and the try was bombed. Ireland had completed history, and that play was South Africa’s match in a nutshell.
Where do the Boks head from here? This is probably the lowest ebb for South African rugby ever, and it doesn’t seem like there are solutions round the corner with the powers that be.
The new players who were brought in were ineffective, the old players who were there were abysmal and just didn’t stand up.
So now what? Bring in more inexperienced players and expose them to a hungry, confident Ireland? Or rely on more European-based players – the bane of Springbok fans in the Heyneke Meyer era? What style should they play?
It seems that they have been caught in a bit of an identity crisis, not knowing whether to play traditional, attritional, South African rugby, or transition to a more ball-in-hand approach. There are more questions surrounding the Springboks than there are answers forthcoming.
And we might have been given a glimpse of what is to come with Coetzee’s call-up to Morné Steyn. Just how do South African fans feel about that? I’ll leave it to the sagacious Roarers to voice their thoughts.
For Ireland, history beckons. This is the best chance they will ever have of winning a series in South Africa, and it must be said that they head into the Highveld as favourites. The way with which they faced adversity in the first Test and came out stronger will have endowed them with incredible confidence, and with the players they have at their disposal (not one injury concern from the first Test) they will be raring to go again.
This does not mean that a victory is a given. Most of these players will never have played at Johannesburg before, and it’s up to the more experienced guys like Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip (who were involved with the Lions in 2009) to keep the youngsters honest, and aware of what they’ll be facing.
How they replace Stander will also be interesting, with talk of Iain Henderson moving to No.6 and bringing in Connacht youngster Ultan Dillane. What sort of Springbok team will they face? I’ve noticed most of the Roarers (mainly from Australia and New Zealand) expect the Boks to be hurting and ‘more dangerous when they’re wounded’ and while certainly an attitudinal shift is needed, the Boks were also outplayed by Ireland.
Attitude only takes you so far, the structures and tactics need to be in place to allow the players’ attitudes to affect the game, otherwise against a wily coach in Joe Schmidt, they will be picked off easily. Just watch the replay of France versus Ireland in 2014 to get a better idea of what I’m saying.
So at the end of the day, what should we expect from the second Test? I’m not too sure, and I’m afraid to say, I’m not too optimistic ahead of the Springboks’ Judgment Day.