I’m finding it hard to make sense of it. You know the way events sometimes just don’t make sense no matter how hard you try and rationalise them? Well, I had that sensation in abundance yesterday. For those who missed it, Ireland defeated South Africa (Saturday 11 June 2016) at their Newlands stronghold. The win was significant enough in itself. Prior to Saturday’s game, the Irish had never tasted victory on South African soil. In truth, they hadn’t even come close. Therefore, their win was historic and unprecedented in equal measure. However, as anyone who witnessed the Irish performance will tell you, Saturday’s effort was so much more.
Typical of this enigmatic Irish side, they made history the hard way. The visitors found themselves down to 14-men after just 20 minutes thanks to the controversial sending off of their naturalised back row, CJ Stander, who was red carded for a clumsy challenge on his former compatriot and team-mate, Patrick Lambie. A Test match in South Africa is an unforgiving environment for any rugby team. The conditions are notoriously brutal, confrontational, and hostile. Therefore, for a young Irish side to think their way to victory in such challenging circumstances is nothing short of incredible.
I’ve been watching rugby for nearly thirty years, and can’t remember anything remotely like Saturday’s career defining performance. Indeed, I’m old enough to remember the bad old days when underpowered Irish sides were sent to South Africa to compete against enormous Springbok sides comprised of utter behemoths. In those days, the men in green faced mission impossible, they were ritual lambs to the slaughter. In writing this piece, I think back to 1998 when an Irish team led by Paddy Johns faced shocking levels of aggression and attrition on the Highveld. The Battle of Pretoria and all that. Look it up on You Tube if you haven’t seen it. It was shocking stuff. Notorious. Madness everywhere. Nevertheless, Johns’s men didn’t take a backward step, meeting fire with fire on one of rugby’s darkest days. Thankfully, the game has come a long way in the ensuing years. Such overt and unfiltered violence simply isn’t tolerated in the uber-sanitised modern, professional game. Here’s the point, though. In those days, it was inconceivable, unrealistic even, to think that Ireland would ever defeat the Springboks on their home patch. That they did it in the midst of such adversity is remarkable in the extreme.
Of course many of Ireland’s woes were self-inflicted. What of the sending off? While Stander’s challenge was undeniably reckless and ugly (it doesn’t get any better with repeat viewing), CJ assuredly had no intention of hurting his former team-mate, and it’s hard to resist the impression that Ireland’s flanker was committed to a challenge he was unable to avoid in the heat of the moment. The post match consensus held that a yellow card was a more fitting sanction, and I don’t disagree with that analysis. Despite Ireland’s deeply ingrained propensity to make life difficult for themselves, this was a performance to be admired and treasured as a monumental effort. While Ireland’s tactics undoubtedly worked a treat, this was a win achieved with old fashioned grit and determination. The Irish refused to submit, just wouldn’t be beaten; even when reduced to 13-men following Robbie Henshaw’s first half sin-binning. This victory was all about belief and conviction; the young side showing unwavering heart and composure to withstand the South African onslaught.
Witness the way three Irish defenders bundled JP Pietersen into touch at the death to deny the South Africans a win they scarcely deserved. This display was all about collective will and determination, the Irish simply wouldn’t be denied. In a side shorn of experience and leadership, good performances abounded everywhere. To a man, Ireland’s players emphatically rose to the occasion. Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip, and Jared Payne all contributed outstanding performances. So too Paddy Jackson. The Ulster youngster has waited a long time for his opportunity and he grabbed it with both hands, with a performance full of composure and thoughtfulness. This was Jackson’s moment. And what about captain fantastic? Rory Best was magnificent. I lost count of the times the Irish skipper saved the day. Best was everywhere in a game where his leadership and character shone brightest. If anyone still doubts the class of the Ulster hooker, I suggest they look again at the video.
Incredibly, an historic series win is now within the ambit of Joe Schmidt’s men. After Saturday, belief and optimism must be surging through the veins of the entire squad. A word of caution, though. I can’t recall a worse South African performance. The Springboks were dire on Saturday, and this proud rugby nation will unquestionably be smarting like never before. I fully expect a terrifying backlash next week. However, if Ireland can somehow withstand the mammoth onslaught, anything is possible. The bar has been set, and Schmidt’s men will be determined to make further history. It’s going to be a fascinating couple of weeks. It seems fitting to leave the final word to Man of the Match, Devin Toner. It’s been a difficult few weeks for the giant second row following the passing of his father. Toner has developed into a mature and vital member of Schmidt’s squad; his humble, modest demeanour reflecting the core values of this Irish team. On collecting his thoroughly deserved MOTM award, the big man simply said: “I just wanted to say, that’s for dad.” It was a poignant and evocative end to one of Ireland’s greatest days.