RYAN VREDE, in Dublin, watched the Springboks deliver one of the great turnarounds in their history to beat Ireland 16-12.
How the Springboks managed this victory after the deep sterility of their first half will go down in folklore. There are probably a myriad reasons for it, some more significant than others. Heyneke Meyer has been heavily criticised by some sectors of the press and public for his pragmatism. Tonight’s performance would have done little to quell that criticism, but he won’t care.
The importance of this victory in the context of his career and sanity cannot be overstated. Had they lost this I fear Meyer, a man already showing the physical strain of his tenure, would have suffered a serious lapse of self-confidence. The spin-offs of that for the team are self-evident.
Meyer needed this win on a personal level as much as the collective did. So intricately entwined is his identity in the result that a win or a loss defines him as a winner or loser. This is not baseless nor romantic and he is not the first coach inflicted with this condition. It is an assertion based on a close professional relationship with the man.
And on this bitterly cold Dublin night, his charges, depleted through injuries and without the consistently good Beast Mtawarira, warmed his heart. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the way the victory was achieved. But there didn’t need to be. Indeed it was awful at times. Their first meaningful foray into Ireland’s 22m came in the 15th minute and they blew that by turning down a mauling opportunity (their standout strength) in favour of an elaborate backline move that would have made a club coach cringe.
The Springboks will never know the extent of what they’ve done for their coach with a come-from-behind win.
The booming pyrotechnics pre-match was the most explosive thing about this event, with the game initially settling into a kick pattern, a battle Ireland undoubtedly won in the early exchanges. As did they the collisions, which gave them the ascendancy at the breakdown, a series of turnovers the consequence.
Ireland’s defence in the first half was excellent, but their examination was a weak one, the Springboks impotency and utter lack of imagination allowing their opponents to pick off strike runners with relative ease.
Predictions were for a duel of the goal-kickers, and Jonathan Sexton, among the most accurate in the world this year, capitalised on Ireland’s territorial advantage and the Springboks’ ill-discipline to open a 12-3 lead going into the last 10 minutes of the half, Pat Lambie’s three pointer all the visitors could muster in response.
The Springboks’ problems were compounded when JP Pietersen was yellow carded in the 31st minute for an early and dangerous hit on Chris Henry. It was a holding job until the break, one they crucially negotiated successfully, to trail 12-3.
Only they will know the nature of Meyer’s message to them. I suspect it was a desperate plea. Moments like that rarely feature considered thought. His team hadn’t inspired. Far from it. They never looked like scoring. Any salvaging of their situation, so deeply dire, looked completely beyond them.
Then something changed. Their luck turned. No that’s only part of it. They got some field position. They tightened up their attacking play, the forwards asserting themselves in a manner they hadn’t until that point.
There was a rolling maul at last. Slow inches. Penalty. Jamie Heaslip gone for cynically collapsing it. Another maul from which Ruan Pienaar exploited a depleted defence to score. Lambie kicked the conversion and shortly after that sent his side ahead with a penalty. An act of defiance from a team reborn.
Test experience is not a commodity the Springboks have in abundance, and the next 20 minutes would have been an invaluable education for them. Their defence improved markedly. Particularly notable was their work-rate which saw them cut off and often smash the inside runners. They denied Ireland for waves of attack, but also spurned a couple of good opportunities in the red zone, which would have eased their plight.
But with 10 minutes to play the Springboks got an immediate return on what was a gamble on Heinke van der Merwe. The loosehead prop shoved like he has spent his time with Leinster doing only that, earning two penalties, the second converted by Lambie for a slender four-point lead. The discipline, physicality, nay brutality, and accuracy of the Springboks’ defensive effort in those dying minutes could only be truly appreciated from the stands of the Aviva Stadium. The Springboks refused to relent, refused to lose. Just refused to.
Ireland’s belief drained with every tackle inflicted on them. South Africa’s soared at the final whistle. It wasn’t pretty. But who cares? It was a small step in a long journey. But how important a step it was.