Before kick off in yesterday’s international between Ireland and South Africa Tom McCgurk stated that the stakes couldn’t be higher. In truth, aside from the rare friendly, the stakes don’t come much lower than the Autumn series for international rugby. Yes it was the World Champions, there was a bit of edge carried over from the Lions tour and Ireland wanted to defend their unbeaten record but there was no Six Nations, Tri-nations or Wold Cup on the line. This is why is was the right call for Kidney to give Johnny Sexton his second cap on a big stage, against the best in front of a packed Croke Park.
Of course its easy to say that now after the 24-year-old kicked Ireland to a 15-10 victory but it would have been the right call even if the Leinsterman crumbled under the pressure. Autumn internationals need to be used to gauge the capabilities of young players. The six nations is no time to be gambling with selections which is precisely why Kidney needed to know if he had a reliable back up to O’ Gara when the big games arrive. Contrast Kidney’s Ireland to the calamitous management of England by Martin Johnson, instead of allowing young players the opportunity to prove themselves Johnson has called back players like Thompson, Shaw and Wilkinson while leaving exciting talent like Gearghty, Hartley and Foden out of the fray.
Getting back to events in Croke Park yesterday, I was obviously delighted to see Ireland overcome the challenge of Matfield and co but equally as happy to see the team playing exciting, attractive rugby get their just rewards. Ireland were undoubtedly the better side, despite a nervous opening 30 minutes which saw the ‘Boks camped in Irish territory. Peter De Villiers side encompassed all that is wrong with modern rugby. Teams play more with a fear of losing than a desire to win. Since the introduction of the ELVs sides have placed an overwhelming emphasis on kicking, a development spearheaded by the Pumas in World Cup ’07. The net result is 80 minutes garryowens which has reduced the game as a spectacle.
The highly acclaimed Morne Steyn personified this mindset throughout the match. The fly half showed a lack of belief in his midfield by resorting to the boot time and time again. This tactic was inevitably the downfall of the Wold Champions who failed to devise a plan B when Kearney, Bowe and Earls proved how effective the running game can still be giving Ireland the platform they needed and forcing the visitors to give away countless penalties.
Tries are at an all time low in the sport and after a rather dull Autumn series it was a breath of fresh air to see Kearney repeatedly back himself to beat the first tackler and inject some life into the crowd at the same time. With Ireland under serious pressure in the scrum they needed Heaslip’s dynamism off the base to establish any kind of platform. The SA line-out, commended though it may be, was dismantled by O’ Callaghan and O’ Connell who got through a fierce amount of work around the field.
There was no shortage of muscle in the back division with O’ Leary and Sexton putting in an impressive shift in defence. Darcy came off the bench and added to the Irish power in midfield accelerating into the contact and staying on his feet to make the hard yards. O’ Driscoll was quiet in parts but as always when the team needed him he delivered with a ferocious hit to end the match which left the skipper dazed but victorious. His commitment and resilience throughout the year renders the decision of the IRB not to award him player of the year nothing short of farcical. As for the new number 10, perhaps the biggest complement you could pay is to say that it could have been his 52nd cap, such was the level of composure he displayed. He fed his back line well, hit the gainline at pace and most importantly kept a cool head when kicking for goal.
The irony of course comes in the fact that the team who oozed negativity scored the only try of the contest, Burger’s finish was as clinical as his celebration was ridiculous. Ireland’s failure to dot down the result of magnificent defence and a lack of luck on occasions. It’s not all perfect for Kidney’s men, the front row is still a hugely problematic area but for now they should be proud of what they achieved and the manner in which they achieved it.