South Africa tried to be clever against Ireland with their top-heavy 'Bomb Squad' – and it backfired

RG Snyman is tackled by Ireland's James Lowe and Bundee Aki
Brute force didn't work against a ferocious Ireland defence - Aurelien Morissard/AP

By the time the final whistle blew and the PA announcer at the Stade de France put on The Cranberries’ Zombie (turning the volume down during the chorus to allow the estimated 30,000 Irish fans packed into the stadium to belt out ‘What’s in your head, in your head? Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie-ie…’) it was difficult to imagine a more enjoyable evening from an Irish perspective.

What a performance, what a statement from Andy Farrell’s men. A 16th win in a row, this time against the world champions, which should ensure the world’s No1 ranked team finish top of Pool B and thus avoid hosts France in the quarter-finals.

And yet. Fine margins. While Ireland fans were understandably ecstatic, heading off into the Parisian night to paint the town green, South Africans were full of regret. Were it not for four missed shots at goal in the second half, or one badly-skewed lineout or two late scrum penalties, it might have been a very different story. And they knew it.

Boks fans took to social media in their droves after the game to demand answers. For them, those Zombie lyrics might as well have been aimed at their coaching team. ‘What’s in your head, in your head?’

James Lowe acknowledges fans after the match
James Lowe acknowledges fans after the match - Julian Finney - World Rugby

What was in Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber’s heads when they selected Deon Fourie as their replacement hooker for a game of this magnitude? Fourie last played there for Lyon back in 2017/18 when Jacob Zuma was South African president and Allister Coetzee the Springbok coach. What did they think would happen when they got a pressure lineout in the last 15 minutes?

What was in their heads when they selected Manie Libbok at fly half rather than fit-again World Cup-winner Handre Pollard, who was recently drafted back into the Boks squad following a tournament-ending injury to hooker Malcolm Marx?

Yes, Libbok assisted for Cheslin Kolbe’s try (would Pollard have created the same opportunity?) But he also missed two relatively simple shots at goal, on top of two long-range efforts missed by Faf de Klerk. And incidentally, why did South Africa keep taking shots at goal from the half-way line when they had such a strong lineout and no kicker?

Nienaber was at pains afterwards to say that it was Ireland’s speed and accuracy at the breakdown which, for him, was the major difference between the two teams, rather than the goalkicking.

“Yes we missed a couple of points off the tee but I won’t say that’s the reason solely for not getting over the line,” argued the South Africa coach. “I know you guys will say that. But we had opportunities, especially in the first half. And again in the back end of the game. That maul at the end…”

Ultimately, South Africa tried to be clever with their selection and it backfired. They gambled on a team without a specialist kicker, without a specialist hooker on the bench, and it came back to bite them. All the talk beforehand had been about how Ireland would cope with the Boks’ 7-1 bench split. But in the end, it was Ireland’s traditional 5-3 bench which made the bigger difference.

Ireland's James Ryan (C) in action during the match
Ireland's James Ryan (C) in action during the match - Shutterstock

Dan Sheehan and Iain Henderson came on and shored up Ireland’s lineout (never mind South Africa’s missed kicking opportunities, what about the four five-metre lineouts butchered by Ireland); Conor Murray came on and won not only a turnover but forced a knock on in his first couple of minutes on the pitch; Jack Crowley came on for Johnny Sexton and slotted a penalty; Dave Kilcoyne and Finlay Bealham came on and helped win two late scrum penalties.

South Africa, by contrast, lacked balance. They suffered without a form kicker on the pitch. They could have done with a Willie Le Roux in the closing stages. Suddenly, their squad - which features four scrum halves and only one specialist hooker - looks lopsided. It will be fascinating to see which way they go against Tonga next weekend; whether Pollard comes back in immediately; whether they revert to 6-2 on the bench, or even 5-3; whether one of their scrum halves picks up an ‘injury’ and they bring in a Joseph Dweba or similar.

The scary thing, at least from everyone else’s perspective, is that even allowing for the four missed kicks and numerous botched chances, South Africa were still only one converted try away from winning this game. Some of their tackling was absolutely monstrous (30 dominant tackles in total).

As Nienaber warned afterwards, the world champions will doubtless learn from this defeat and come back stronger, most likely with Pollard in their ranks. In the meantime, they will lick their wounds. This was a night when they found themselves hoisted by their own petard.

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