Sexton leads humbling of Ireland’s World Cup rivals
Joe Schmidt, the head coach, had called for a big performance here to “really put the Irish Rugby Football Union in the shop window” when it comes to Wednesday’s vote for the right to host the 2023 World Cup.
Whether this crushing win – Ireland’s biggest ever over South Africa by some considerable margin – makes a blind bit of difference to the outcome of that vote is highly debatable.
World Rugby’s evaluation commission has already spoken and it seems unlikely council members will disregard its report.
What it did highlight, though, was two teams going in opposite directions. Ireland’s 35-point winning margin more than doubled their previous best of 17 over the Springboks, set in a 32-15 victory at Lansdowne Road in 2006. And it set alarm bells ringing for the Springboks who produced one of their worst performances since Allister Coetzee took charge 18 months ago.
With Jonathan Sexton pulling the strings like a puppet master, and a nice blend of youth and experience in the team, the hosts were superior in almost every department; at the set-piece, at the breakdown, in their kicking game. Certainly in terms of their discipline.
“There are no positives from our side,” Coetzee said despondently. “We let ourselves down. We lacked patience with our kicking game. Our breakdown and discipline was terrible. We went 14-0 down and then it’s difficult to play catch-up rugby.”
Coetzee is a man under serious pressure. Former Springbok prop Ollie Le Roux’s blistering attack on him earlier in the week had been crass to say the least. Arguing that Coetzee had no right to coach his country having never played for them was not only hugely insensitive – Coetzee was prevented from playing for his country for the vast majority of his career due to apartheid – it was also a bogus argument. Only two World Cup-winning coaches played for their countries, which suggests Test match experience is hardly a pre-requisite for a successful international coach.
Le Roux should have just focused on Coetzee’s coaching. South Arica looked poor here; passes straight into touch, fumbled restarts, no coherent strategy. Perhaps they were just confused by the clash of kits. Ireland were wearing a bizarre purply-green number which made it hard to differentiate between the teams.
It did not seem to hamper Ireland, though. Young wingers Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway both made an impact, scoring a try apiece; Sexton and halfback partner Conor Murray ran the show as they were always likely to against the less experienced South African back pairing of Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies, especially on a slippery wet surface.
The spine of Ireland’s team is incredibly strong. Schmidt had no fewer than 11 Lions in his starting XV. But it was a debutant who set the tone for Ireland in the first minute. Bundee Aki, whose selection at 12 had reignited the debate over residency rules, teamed up with Sexton to put in a huge hit on Coenraad Oosthuizen in the very first minute which caused the tighthead’s knee to jar and led to him being carried off the field on a stretcher. “You never like to see that,” observed captain Rory Best. “But it was a great hit.”
Ireland then won a penalty from the first scrum – Tadhg Furlong showing Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira no deference whatsoever – from which Sexton booted the home side into an early lead.
Sexton soon had two further penalties as Ireland took complete control of the game, the Springboks seemingly powerless to generate any momentum.
Ireland almost had their first try with a smooth backs move off the training field, which saw Sexton loop around the back of Robbie Henshaw and put Conway into open space.
Conway did not have to wait long, though; Murray hoisting a perfect upand-under from near the 10m line, South Africa’s defenders bungling the catch and the Munster wing plucking the loose ball out of despairing Bok clutches and sprinting home from 25m.
South Africa had 50 per cent possession in the first half but even when they did apply a little pressure, Ireland were able to repel them with relative ease.
When Sexton conceded a penalty on the 10m line for a late, no-arms tackle, the Boks opted to kick for the corner rather than goal. In hindsight, they should have taken the points. Ireland held them out, Furlong managing two tackles in the space of a five seconds at one stage and CJ Stander producing an immense turn-over on the line which won him back-slaps all round, and that was basically that. South Africa got some points on the board a couple of minutes into the second half, but they never looked like coming back into it.
Ireland saved the best for last, three late tries putting their opponents to the sword. First Rhys Ruddock muscled his way over after Conway’s powerful run down the right flank. Then Rob Herring drove over from a close-range lineout. And finally Stockdale got the try his muscular performance deserved. Joey Carbery, on for Sexton, even knocked over the conversion from way out on the touchline.
“The scoreline flattered us a little bit,” said Schmidt. “I grew up watching the Springboks be a pretty dominant team, and I don’t think this Bok team is too far away from that.”
It felt worryingly like sympathy.
Touchdown: Andrew Conway slides over the line to score Ireland’s first try and give them a 14-0 lead over South Africa in Dublin