How much store do you place on the Autumn Internationals? A passive observer would probably deem them no more than puffed up friendlies. The aficionado, though, sees them as the laying foundations and building something as the nuts and bolts of the day job kicks off for International players.
My own view is probably somewhere in the middle of the two. Yes, they are ideal platforms for blooding new recruits, testing the metal thereof and thus gauging where a team’s overall depth is at. However, no matter how ferociously they are contested – and this one most certainly was – to my mind they are still a step or two below either a Six Nations Championship match or one in a World Cup.
Now, I am unsure as to how the rankings in world rugby are configured, but if memory serves me correctly, there are oddities to it. Something evidenced by the fact that Ireland are currently the top ranked side in the game, even though today’s opponents are the current holders of the Webb Ellis trophy.
To be fair, Andy Farrell’s charges gave an ample demonstration of why they are so highly rated here. Mostly in the pack, where they absolutely bullied the Springboks at scrum time.
Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Josh Van Der Flier and Caelen Dorris were immense. Even so, it was deadlocked at six apiece half way through. At which stage that point was made that the one thing Ireland couldn’t afford to get into was a kicking competition.
Or at least that was the way it always was against South Africa. But in this contest the Boks kicking game was utterly abyssmal. Mind you, the home team had their own problems after the first half.
Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong and Stuart McCloskey all having departed for the treatment room before the midway point. They were cruel blows to all three. Murray on the occasion of his 100th cap, while the other two lads were both coming back after lenghty injury absences.
Then again, misfortune creates opportunity. To that end, Findlay Bealham and Jamison Gibson-Park and – on his debut – Jimmy O’Brien all excelled when entering the fray.
The Kiwi scrum half in particular gave the Irish performance much more tempo. Both off the base of the scrum and producing quick ruck ball which a marauding Irish attack then made scintilating use of.
Via exquisite tries – in their construction and execution – from Mack Hansen and a worldy effort from the imperious Van Der Flier. If there was one glitch in the performance, it was at the line out.
The sideline-centred setpiece has long been the fulcrum of what Irish teams have done best for as long as this writer can recall, but for periods yesterday, it was the team’s only major malfunction.
With a certain Mr O’Connell a key contributor to the preparation of this particular group, expect manic aggression to be applied to sorting it out before next week.