Springboks v Ireland: Five takeaways as Rassie Erasmus breaks duck and the player who ‘must start’ next weekend

James While
Ox Nche for the Springboks against Ireland.

Ox Nche for the Springboks against Ireland.

Following a 27-20 win for the Springboks over Ireland at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, here’s James While’s five takeaways from a gripping game on Saturday.

The top line

A match that South Africa dominated in its early stages but became more scrappy as it progressed saw the Springboks record their first win against the world number two side in eight years.

It was far from a classic; lacking fluency, full of errors and often an arm wrestle of territory in midfield, it was always going to revolve around a few moments of brilliance and they came from Kurt-Lee Arendse with a brilliant finish in the first half, and answered by a play of genius from the outstanding James Lowe as he defied physics to keep the ball in play for Ireland’s opener. Ireland‘s full-back on debut Jamie Osborne featured in both tries – left for dead by Arendse in the backfield but getting redemption as he was on hand to pick up the offload from Lowe’s moment of genius.

Rather remarkably this is Rassie Erasmus‘ first ever win against Ireland, although as the match went on his charges did his best to lose the game as Ireland mounted an impressive comeback, scoring through Conor Murray in the 74th minute and Ryan Baird, a man who must surely start next week in Durban, after 78 minutes.

Ireland managed to save their blushes with those last 10 efforts, but there’s no doubt that had the Boks been a little more accurate in their final handling earlier on in the match that they should have been out of sight and both teams will be looking for a much improved display next weekend.

Battle of the basics

When Ireland meet South Africa you can be sure that all of the basics of the game will be pushed and tested to their utmost limit and Saturday’s Test at Loftus Versfeld delivered the usual script down to the letter.

South Africa dominated so much yet made so many errors and lacked efficiency. It took Ireland until the 30 minute mark to make their first dominant carry when Caelan Doris crashed through the Bok line to make a long overdue dent. At the heart of the Bok display was the matter of territory – Ireland spent less than a cumulative total of three minutes in the Springbok 22 all match as their power in midfield defence absolutely strangled Ireland. And a whole minute of that Irish 22 territory took place early in the first half when the Bok defence was mercurial in keeping them out and turning them over, and another minute in the last few plays of the match when the Boks conceded a couple of penalties under pressure.

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Led by the magnificent Pieter-Steph du Toit who had one of his most complete performances both sides of the ball, Ireland simply struggled to compete in the contact, yet remarkably harried and hurried everything in white as they competed not in power but in spoiling intellect. It was both canny and opportunistic and it says everything about their intellect that they managed nine steals whilst being bashed backwards in collision.

However, at scrum time, Ireland did a magnificent job via the power of Andrew Porter, who gave the great Frans Malherbe a torrid time in the tight and for once the Bok set-piece was equalled if not, on occasions bettered by a tremendous display from the Irish front-row. However, beating one of the South African front-rows is one thing, but to take them both on is taking the micky a little and it wasn’t without surprise when the Bomb Squad struck back in the dying moments to absolutely trolly the Irish replacements and crash over for a penalty try.

Tony Brown influence

South Africa are a side that continue to tweak, hone and improve every facet of their game and, although they were not at their most fluent today it’s clear that since Tony Brown joined the backroom staff there’s a clear plan to get the ball wider and to take advantage of the mismatches their thundering carriers create in midfield.

With Handre Pollard back in the saddle at 10, the Boks have something they crave above all else – control. And he probed and unstitched the Irish defence quite brilliantly at times, although perhaps the South Africa coaches may have been disappointed with the yield from their domination, especially in the first half.

The Brown plan is simple; crash the ball fast and direct; recycle and get wide, using the two flankers, Du Toit and Siya Kolisi (a man whose demise has been seriously over reported in France) to create the extra man, either in the 13/14 channel or staying on the touchline to allow the wing to step in and attack on the switchback.

It worked beautifully for Arendse’s opening try; we saw the play go wide to the right, with Du Toit taking numbers with him out on the channels, before the Bok midfield switched the play, brought Kolisi into the line at pace leaving Arendse only one man to beat which he did with a flick of the hips and a kick of the heels.

It was a stunning score, one created and honed on the training ground and it demonstrated clearly both Brown’s influence on tactics and the Springbok desire to evolve their game to new heights.

Ireland’s learning

For all the legend of South Africa’s Bomb Squad there’s little doubt that the Irish bench lifted their team to a much improved performance in the second half, despite the pummelling their front-row took in the last scrum. They will be rightly annoyed about the marginal decision that saw the Lowe try chalked off, but once the TMO had intervened with such clarity of instruction to referee Luke Pearce, it was impossible for the Englishman to ignore the evidence, however marginal it was.

Baird added so much to Ireland’s effort and his mobility and physicality is surely worth a starting place over and above Peter O’Mahony, a player now that offers little else other than a reliable lineout presence and a grumpy soundtrack for the on-field officials. Baird’s try demonstrated his pace and mobility and for all the excellence of O’Mahony’s career, surely it’s now time to put the great man out to grass?

Conversely the experience of Murray took so much pressure off his midfield carriers and perhaps playing a pair of inexperienced half-backs together was a big ask for Ireland, but a reasonable one given Andy Farrell’s need to develop this Irish side into a new World Cup cycle.

The last lesson Ireland will take with them is, as another year hits their legs, playing Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki together is the classic case of being able to change the bowlers but not the bowling style. They’re both medium pacers these days and Ireland sorely missed Garry Ringrose’s silky running and intelligence in the midfield.

The week ahead

As the match on Saturday progressed so Ireland became stronger, and the performances of Lowe, Doris and Baird will give them much encouragement, as will the way Joe McCarthy stayed in the match for 55 minutes as he faced the ultimate physical examination.

South Africa make a habit of winning ugly and today was pretty awful to look at times but they emerged on the right side of the scoreboard yet again. But they’ll seek much greater accuracy in terms of their attack and handling, they’ll demand a much greater effort in post metre gainline carry and above all, they’ll know they need to play for the full 80 minutes, something they failed to do today.

But the Boks are trying to play a new style of game and their width was credit to their ambition. Both teams will lick their wounds and the work-ons will be remarkably obvious for both sets of coaches to focus their charges on. The series continues in Durban next week and, at sea level, we can expect to see a slightly more fluid match.

READ MORE: Ireland player ratings: ‘Mighty’ Caelan Doris shines but backs struggle to break through