Johnny Sexton (Getty)
World ranked number one Ireland move on from their gritty win over world champions South Africa to take on crowd-pleasing Fiji next Saturday while the Springboks face Six Nations Grand Slam champions France.
Apart from lessons learned to take into their next matches, AFP Sport picks out three things that might have longer-term impact on the 2023 World Cup:
Pollard and Am missing aces in Springbok hand
South Africa will be a different proposition for Ireland in next September’s pool match at the World Cup if both fly-half Handre Pollard and centre Lukhanyo Am are as effective after returning from injury.
Pollard brings accuracy with the boot which crucially keeps the scoreboard ticking over while Am provides a cutting edge in the centres.
Both kicking accuracy and creativity were lacking on Saturday and are two things head coach Jacques Nienaber will try and address before the clash with France — although as he said, “some things take longer than others to fix.”
Damian Willemse is a talented back but the confidence drained from him during the 80 minutes of torture he endured at fly-half against the Irish.
Replaced before half-time as their points kicker — Cheslin Kolbe hardly did better — his match was summed up in the second half when he sent a kick to touch straight out, handing back territorial advantage to the Irish.
Am’s stand-in, the veteran Jesse Kriel, is more a battering ram. His crunching tackle on Johnny Sexton gave the Ireland captain a dead leg but he lacks the artistry of his injured team-mate.
Irish wary of history repeating itself
The result may give the Irish a slight psychological edge when they meet at the Stade de France in the World Cup on September 23 next year.
However, a year in rugby is a very long time as both sides discovered in their respective change of fortunes from 2018 to 2019.
The Irish achieved the Six Nations Grand Slam and in November that year beat the All Blacks in Dublin — a year later the same opponents played them off the park in their World Cup quarter-final.
Indeed Joe Schmidt’s carefully crafted gameplan peaked in 2018 and by 2019 the world and his wife had worked it out and there was no Plan B.
His successor Andy Farrell appears to have several — a less rigid coach than Schmidt, he allows the players to adapt their strategy to the circumstances in the match.
That can give Irish fans some hope that Ireland can at the very least reach the semi-finals for the first time.
Nienaber says Saturday’s defeat to Ireland has “no relevance” whatsoever to their World Cup clash.
Indeed he takes solace that in 2018 the Springboks lost, according to him, 50 percent of their matches and a year later were lifting the Webb-Ellis trophy.
“This defeat means you have to consolidate and try and build momentum again.”
Sexton the playmaker, Gibson-Park the orchestrator
Ireland rugby fans are keeping their fingers crossed that iconic fly-half Johnny Sexton stays fit till the World Cup — even at 37 he is their lucky charm.
However, fast approaching similar status is his Leinster team-mate and half-back partner Jamison Gibson-Park.
The 30-year-old New Zealand-born scrum-half had not played any rugby since being instrumental in the historic series win over the All Blacks in July.
However, as Farrell commented afterwards it was hard to tell Gibson-Park was playing his first minutes of the season as he tore into the world champions on Saturday having replaced the injured Conor Murray.
His piercing of the Springbok defence set up Ireland’s second try and allied to his quick passing and sterling defence were pivotal to their gutsy victory.
Farrell is adamant that no player owns the respective Irish jerseys but to many people’s minds Gibson-Park is now as indispensable at number 9 as Sexton is as playmaker.
The despair on Murray’s face as he came off reflected much more than just the pain he felt from the injury.
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