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Gordon D’Arcy: South Africa won’t make any apologies for trying to grind Ireland into the dirt

Growing reliance on Jamison Gibson-Park means there’s an argument to give Craig Casey more opportunities

New Zealand represented the high watermark for Irish rugby through the ages, the All Blacks placed on a pedestal and eulogised, in the hope that the sport’s most iconic team might sit up and take notice of us on a rugby pitch.

We fulfilled the role of the little brother in sibling terms, largely irritating and occasionally presumptuous but when the need arose firmly slapped back into place. That all changed on a Chicago afternoon in 2016 when Ireland broke the seal on winning a Test match against the All Blacks and since then have gone on to prevail on five occasions.

That long ambition of trying to beat world rugby’s standard-bearers tended to overshadow Irish rugby’s relationship with the other Southern Hemisphere giants. It’s not as if Ireland held the nap hand in any of those relationships; far from it.

Australia have a brace of World Cup triumphs in the cabinet. South Africa, who Ireland face on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium, are the reigning world champions, having claimed the Webb Ellis trophy on three occasions, the same number as New Zealand.


When crunching the numbers, it should be noted that Ireland have managed just a single win against the Springboks on South African soil, when Joe Schmidt’s side won the first Test in Cape Town in 2016, and that the overall total of seven victories in 26 Tests is just a couple more than our win record against previously unbeatable nemesis, the All Blacks.

South Africa are a very tough team to get past on the scoreboard as I was reminded at a recent event in Clongowes to honour former rugby internationals in a discussion with Sean MacHale, 86 years young, who played loosehead prop on the Ireland side that beat the Springboks 9-6 at Lansdowne Road in 1965.

It was 39 years before Ireland managed to win again, Ronan O’Gara’s crafty try caused uproar during and after the home side’s 17-12 victory. My own experiences were painful physically irrespective of the result, which invariably carried the strapline, ‘big men hit hard’.

I was looking back at some of the footage, and it got me thinking about a conversation with the former Ireland forwards’ coach Gert Smal ahead of our game against the Springboks at Croke Park in November 2009, the contents and tone of which are still relevant when looking ahead to this Saturday’s game.

At the that time we were Grand Slam Six Nations champions, the summer tour had produced a clean sweep of the opposition, but we faced into a tough November programme against Australia, Fiji, and South Africa. The previous year Declan Kidney had recruited Smal, a player whose international career was compromised by apartheid but who would go on to be a brilliant coach.

Smal had been an assistant to Jake White when South Africa won the 2007 World Cup but proved to be so much more astute than simply fulfilling his primary role as a forwards’ coach. I learned a great deal from him about various aspects of the game, including mental preparation and focus.

The game in Croke Park represented the first time that he, as a South African, would try and plot the downfall of the Springboks for which he would be praised or pilloried back home depending on the outcome.

I remember sitting in a team room in the Shelbourne Hotel overlooking Stephen’s Green as Smal delivered a message to the Ireland match-day squad. He spoke about the 2007 Springbok team that won the World Cup, the majority of whom would be playing against us, and how their mantra during that tournament was to always find a way to win.

The set piece was a huge part of their armoury as it was for generations of South African teams, but Smal explained that they had prepared a way to win in that World Cup without the ball, if the scrum or lineout malfunctioned.

In the final it was their defence and place-kicking that won the day. His point was that there must be other aspects of your game that provide a solution, a way to win even when the performance is a little off-colour. That’s the mark of a great team.

Ireland’s set piece was successfully targeted on a couple of occasions last season by France in Paris during the Six Nations and New Zealand in the opening Test match during the summer tour. Despite the glitches, Ireland still had chances to win those games but didn’t. That’s where the potential progression lies.

I think the Ireland team will struggle at times on Saturday when it comes to the set piece; it’s a reflection of just how powerful South Africa are in those aspects of the game. Rassie Erasmus recognised this advantage when guiding the Springboks to the World Cup triumph in Japan (2019) and it has certainly not diminished subsequently under Jacques Nienaber’s watch.

The way lineout mauls are refereed in the modern game make them very difficult to defend against as a rule, but when you factor in the size and heft of a Springbok pack, it is hardly a surprise that they look to engineer as many opportunities as possible on foot of a sound kicking game and a good chase.

It’s far from an exclusive preserve of the Springboks. Most teams are happy to kick to the corners. Ulster did so against Munster at Thomond Park when leading by a point. They turned down the three and instead went for broke and the bonus point try. It almost came back to bite them.

There is even less equivocation in that decision-making when you have a pack that includes Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Pieter Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi and Jasper Wiese. Aesthetics don’t matter when you win, so it won’t cost the Springboks a second thought to grind Ireland into the Aviva Stadium turf on foot of set-piece mastery and a well-judged kicking game.

It’s not as if it is the only way they can win. Damian Willemse, Cheslin Kolbe and Willie le Roux can make something from nothing, they are individuals for whom flair comes naturally and therefore difficult to contain. Erasmus and Nienaber are planning for next year’s World Cup and using this tour hoping to make a statement to a pool rival in France – Ireland.

They are also exploring the depth of their roster in a few positions, some of it foisted on them through injuries, but also in tagging on some very promising young players to the core group. Jaden Hendrikse starts this week, rewarded for impressive form but also to ascertain the depth behind first-choice metronome Faf de Klerk.

It’s a global trend, the influential scrumhalf, if you examine the role of the No 9s in the top teams: De Klerk, Aaron Smith, Antoine Dupont and very definitely in an Irish context, Jamison Gibson-Park.

Jonathan Sexton’s fitness for the next 10 months will be the subject of many novenas – and that he retains that remarkable capacity to maintain that consistently high level of performance. However, the player that provides Sexton with a menu of options from which to select is Gibson-Park.

One of the strongest aspects of the Irish performances under Andy Farrell is the speed of the ball from the breakdown. Trends come and go; Peter Stringer built a career on being fit and fast with a lighting pass.

If Gibson-Park fails to recover from injury, then it may compromise Ireland’s ability to play that high tempo game. Getting into an arm-wrestle physically with the Springboks is not the desired choice which places a much greater premium on a solid set piece but, more importantly, a quick ruck ethos that has been at the heart of Ireland’s better performances.

Craig Casey complements the style Ireland play while Conor Murray brings a different approach that appreciably alters the tempo of the ball from the breakdown and how we receive and exert pressure.

Casey doesn’t yet possess a body of work at provincial, much less international, level that offers a persuasive argument about his capacity to run big matches from the first whistle. Is it time to take a punt? We certainly can’t allow the same dependency to develop that Ireland have on Sexton when it comes to Gibson-Park.

Casey has all the promise in the world, and Murray will argue he can play that style if allowed. One thing is sure, Sexton won’t play every game and we cannot compound his absence without depth at No 9. If this is Casey’s time, then he needs minutes to be able to share the load with Gibson-Park.

Casey has the physical attributes, pace to the breakdown and a snappy pass but hasn’t developed Gibson-Park’s eloquence as a playmaker. You can’t keep kicking the can down the road so to speak. At some point you can no longer trade in the promise of what the future might hold. Gibson-Park is the man, but who’s next? Saturday might provide an answer.