DESPITE ENJOYING 68% of the possession and a 73% share of the territorial advantage, Ireland only managed to score one try in the 19-13 third Test defeat to South Africa.
Luke Marshall’s score came when the Springboks were down to 14 men after Willie le Roux’s yellow card but they had other genuine try-scoring chances.
The most gilt-edged of their opportunities came in the 53rd minute after some superb build-up play. Presented with a four-on-two, Ireland blew the chance that quite possibly could have won them the Test match and series.
Of course, there are so many other tiny details that contributed to the Irish defeat but this opportunity – picked off by Faf de Klerk – will be one of the major regrets for Schmidt’s men and one of the major incidents they will look to learn from.
The passage begins with a typically clever Irish set-piece play.
Ireland’s lineout effort was solid in the third Test as they consistently took the space the Boks offered up at the front of the lineout. Allister Coetzee’s men marked up strongly in the middle and at the tail, pushing Ireland to take the front.
With Ireland always keen to play off the top of the lineout, that ball from the front is not ideal but Conor Murray managed it well and fired off some excellent passes under pressure to allow Ireland to launch.
On this occasion, Murray is at the front of a six-man formation on the South Africa 22. He’s never a catching option but his presence in the lineout means he’s close to the ball and it also allows CJ Stander to fill the role of the ‘scrum-half’ behind the lineout.
We can see his shadow above, and he is the ball-carrying target for this move.
As Murray backs out of the lineout to accept the ball from jumper Jordi Murphy, Stander breaks out beyond the 15-metre line to put himself into position to carry.
Stander’s target is the space, or ‘seam’, in behind the lineout, between Frans Malherbe and the first defender coming up from 10 metres back – Siya Kolisi.
With Jamie Heaslip showing strongly in midfield, the advancing Boks are initially worried about the number eight and Stander cleverly arcs his run to win a big gainline for Ireland on first phase.
Getting over the gainline on first phase is a huge focus for any side; everything is easier from there. With Heaslip, Andrew Trimble and Tadhg Furlong committing to the ruck, Ireland play their second pre-planned phase to the left.
Murphy, having won the lineout, gets around the corner for another good carry and more gainline progress.
He deliberately targets Boks out-half Elton Jantjies – one of the weakest individual defenders on the pitch – and uses a slight shift of footwork to get to the outside shoulder of the Lions man, luring the Boks into thinking they need to fold around defensively.
Stuart Olding, Devin Toner and Luke Marshall take care of the ruck and now Ireland bounce back against the grain at pace for another prescribed phase.
We’ve seen this in-phase-play maul set up from Ireland quite a few times in recent seasons and it’s an effective tactic when done well. The Chiefs in Super Rugby are another side who have made great gains with mauls during phase play, and the ploy works for Ireland here.
The Ireland front row is in position around Stander as he receives from Murray, and Ireland benefit from Pieter-Steph du Toit going in high on Stander, allowing him to retain his feet with the support from behind.
Ireland, having planned this move in detail, are rapidly into a strong mauling position and they rumble forward.
There’s temptation for Ireland to keep the ball in the maul as they advance here, but Eben Etzebeth does a fine job of forcing his way up the middle to threaten the ball carrier, Iain Henderson.
Instead, Paddy Jackson and Olding suddenly burst from the left side of the maul to the right and the chance is on for Ireland as Murray brings the ball away from the maul.
It’s worth nothing Warren Whiteley’s involvement, or lack thereof, after being spat out by the maul. He’s making his way back and is the closest thing the Boks could have to a ‘pillar’ defender on the left side of their defence.
But the threat of the Irish maul is concerning and Whiteley is in the process of re-committing as Murray breaks away with the ball.
Over on the right-hand side, Jantjies is also hanging around the edge of the maul and he loses track of Jackson and Olding, meaning he doesn’t fold across to mirror them.
Murray finds Jackson and the try is utterly on.
The camera angles from Port Elizabeth were poor all game and don’t convey the sheer scale of the opportunity for Ireland here.
It’s a clear four-on-two in Ireland’s favour with Jackson, Olding, Keith Earls and Trimble up against JP Pietersen and de Klerk. The very best Test sides take this chance every single time.
As Jackson receives the ball, we can actually see Olding pointing the way.
It appears that Olding wants Jackson to straighten up into the clear space to the inside Pietersen.
Instead, Jackson continues on his diagonal line. He can see Trimble in clear space wide on the right.
Even as Jackson takes the ball towards Pietersen, Olding is still open as a viable try-scoring option.
With Pietersen sitting flat-footed in defence as de Klerk opts to rush up and put pressure on any long pass from Jackson, the space for Olding to run into on a short, delayed pass from Jackson shows up.
Jackson has made up his mind to float the pass over the top of de Klerk, however, looking to find Trimble in oceans of space.
Literally another couple of inches of height on the pass would probably take it over de Klerk here, but the Boks scrum-half produces one of his many brilliant defensive actions in this game to explode off the ground and bat the ball down to himself goalkeeper-style.
As always, it’s worth noting that it’s incredibly easy to pick these incidents apart with the benefit of multiple replays and freeze frame images. In the heat of a Test match, making a good decision and executing are incredibly difficult.
However, Jackson and Ireland will review this missed opportunity more harshly than anyone. Whatever decision the out-half makes here – dart at the line himself, feed Earls or Olding early to allow them to draw and pass, find Olding with a short pass on the delay, or go for that floated pass over de Klerk – it simply has to result in a try.
The best teams in the world don’t miss this chance and as Ireland aspire to achieve that status, they will have learned a harsh lesson.
The fine margins in Test rugby can quite literally be measured in inches.
The first-half chance created by Marshall’s brilliant linebreak sticks in the memory too.
Although it’s less clear cut – Ruan Combrinck is hovering in behind Earls and may well have tackled the Munster man had the pass not been forward – it’s an opportunity nonetheless.
Earls may not score directly on this phase if Marshall can find him, but Ireland would be deep behind a Boks defence in disarray. Again, the clinical pass eludes Ireland.
That edge just wasn’t there consistently enough in Ireland’s play, whatever about the positive intent they showed and the expansive tactics they brought in attack between the two 22s.
They made no less than 17 errors leading to a loss of possession when on the attack against the Boks in Port Elizabeth.
Schmidt’s men will back themselves to learn and they will strive to take every single chance they manufacture against New Zealand and Australia in November.
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