Faf de Klerk's heroics in Port Elizabeth prevented the Springboks from suffering a home series loss to Ireland, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
A little man stood tallest in what is supposedly a big man’s game. South Africa triumphed against Ireland in Port Elizabeth thanks to the athleticism of De Klerk, the smallest player on the field.
The Springboks defied Ireland because of De Klerk’s defensive heroics and we can thank De Klerk that the status quo remains that no home nation has won a series in South Africa.
De Klerk’s leap to intercept what would have been an Irish try-scoring pass in the last quarter of the game was spectacular. It will be shown often this year and in years to come.
His smother tackle in the last play of the game was equally spectacular, if not visually, then definitely in terms of impact. It also prevented an Irish try.
The Boks were 19-13 victors in Port Elizabeth. De Klerk’s heroics aside, what is debatable is if the win was down to South African superiority or Irish inferiority.
Ireland enjoyed 68% ball and played most of the match in the South African half, but I never got the feeling they were going to win. The attack lacked a game breaker and someone with X factor. The Bok defence, while still too passive, was always physically too strong for the Irish.
Individually, the Boks were more physical and dominant in the collisions. Siya Kolisi’s turnover from a spot tackle was down to physical superiority and it led to the Boks’ only try of the match.
Kolisi was strong in Port Elizabeth and individually several Boks produced their best effort of the series.
The Boks, despite being secondary in the possession stakes, didn’t look troubled throughout the game. The six-point margin may suggest it being anyone’s Test, but this was an occasion in which the Boks always had the advantage.
The set piece was strong, particularly the scrum, and the most potent advantage was in the collision. Ireland may have put together 15 and 20-plus phases of attack regularly but often the attack was lateral and there was negligible front-foot advantage.
Again, the question has to be asked if victory was down to Springbok excellence or Irish limitations?
The answer would depend on one’s loyalties, but the Irish will leave South Africa wondering if they’ll ever get as good a chance of securing a series win.
The Boks in this series were disjointed and distracted. They were vulnerable and a team with a bit more quality and a few more X-factor players would have seized the moment.
Ireland weren’t good enough to do this. To the Springboks go the spoils, even if the applause is more muted than thunderous.
De Klerk, for me, was the big success of the three-Test series. His play is similar – in style and impact – to New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and the fluidity in his play had a positive effect on halfback partner Elton Jantjies, whose performance in Port Elizabeth was his best as a Springbok.
JP Pietersen rolled back the years in Port Elizabeth but Willie le Roux’s inconsistency continued. His place, as a starting option in the Rugby Championship, cannot be guaranteed on the basis of the three Tests against Ireland.
Similarly, there appeared limitations with the midfield combination of Damian de Allende and Lionel Mapoe. The duo did not gel and Mapoe was seldom played into space. De Allende’s form is down on 2015 and his distribution was lacking. Physically he also didn’t dominate the tackle as he did in 2015.
Specialist openside flank Francois Louw was another whose impact was down on previous seasons. This may be a result of fatigue but greater consideration has to be given to the qualities of Lions flanker Jaco Kriel.
The locally based players will now have a month in which to further impress Springbok coach Allister Coetzee and if there is a lesson in the Irish series, then it’s to select form and select form combinations.
The Springboks escaped the embarrassment of a home series defeat because of individual contributions, with none bigger than De Klerk’s two moments in Port Elizabeth.
Collectively, the Boks didn’t inspire and didn’t impress and the leadership of Adriaan Strauss has more questions than there were answers in the series.
The Boks too often looked like a team caught between two styles of play. The defensive pattern was also one that lacked authority and aggression.
All is not doom, even if not too much in the three Tests appeared delightful.
Significantly, the Springboks won and Ireland lost, and that has to be a positive from which to build for the Rugby Championship.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images