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Room for improvement, but Ireland's demolition of 'Boks leaves huge ground for optimism

Without getting carried away, South Africa’s abject performance shouldn’t take anything away from Ireland.

Ireland celebrate Jacob Stockdale's try.
Ireland celebrate Jacob Stockdale's try.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

HOW TIMES HAVE changed.

It says a lot about expectations, and the standards Joe Schmidt’s side are now expected to meet, that a record victory over the Springboks — traditionally one of the game’s powerhouses — is marked as nothing more than a job well done on the report card.

Granted South African rugby is in a sorry state of affairs, their abject performance bordering on pathetic, but this was a hugely positive start to the season for Ireland and one which leaves huge grounds for optimism going forward.

The late salvo, which included three converted tries in nine minutes, certainly added gloss to the scoreboard as Ireland exposed a tired and sorry ‘Bok defence but a physical and hard-working opening 70 minutes had laid the platform for victory.

A key part of that was a hugely effective kick-chase game, disciplined and rapid line speed and a dominance at the set-piece which left the visitors with no answers and head coach Allister Coetzee at a loss to explain it all.

It was pretty clear to the rest of us; where Ireland nailed the basics all over the park, the ‘Boks lacked accuracy, cohesion and any sort of clarity. Their physical fight, most worryingly, was nowhere near where it should have been for a Test match of this magnitude.

It’s now four straight Test victories for Schmidt’s side, and five without victory for the ‘Boks. The gulf in class between the two sides — ranked fourth and fifth in the world — is widening and there is sure to be more pain for Coetzee’s side with games against France, Italy and Wales to come.

For Ireland, however, the future is bright and South Africa’s performance should not take away from anything Schmidt’s men did on the night.

Now that context has been added to last night’s 38-3 victory, it’s worth focusing on the cool, calm, calculated and controlled performance the hosts produced to get their November programme up and running in style.

In the last 12 months, Ireland have beaten the All Blacks, Australia, England and now South Africa with Schmidt’s tactical blueprint all over the four victories. Yesterday was no different; the kicking game was smart, the work-ethic tireless and the replacements made a big impact off the bench.

Johnny Sexton is presented with the man of the match award by Syl Saller Sexton was named man of the match. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

And perhaps the most satisfying element of it all was the infusion of new blood and the level of influence of Bundee Aki, Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale in particular. Rob Herring and Darren Sweetnam came off the bench to make positive impacts, too.

“The new guys coming in did a fantastic job with the spine of the team which was very experienced,” Schmidt said afterwards.

“I think that allows young players have a degree of comfort in an uncomfortable situation, which any Test match is. It’s not the first time I’ve seen Joey Carbery coming on and with his first touch lobbing the ball on the spot.

“It’s about building confidence and experience in those younger players and I hope we’ll continue to do that in this Guinness series, and through to the Six Nations.”

Schmidt’s World Cup plan is beginning to take shape.

This November window was always going to be the most opportune time to trial and experiment with different players and different combinations while also fully testing the depth of the squad.

Stockdale is a real star of the future and he grew in stature as the game progressed, with his try in the far corner greeted with the biggest roar of the day and an appropriate celebration from his team-mates.

In a game which largely was played down the opposite wing, Stockdale had to be patient for any real involvement in the Test match but a man-and-ball smash on Dillyn Leyds, a line break and then that fine finish made it a memorable home debut for the 21-year-old.

When he got the opportunity, he seized it and that’s why there is such excitement over his talents.

“He’s doing really well, definitely grew into the game as it went on,” Rory Best said of his Ulster team-mate’s performance.

“I’m sure he was nervous but he grew into the game well. Last year was relatively easy for him, he broke in, nobody knew much about what he did.

“Now people know a lot more about him, but he’s still improving. It’s not a case of getting things wrong and it’s the worst thing in the world, it’s how you deal with that, and he’s doing that, it’s good to see.”

As is the sight of Bundee Aki in a green jersey; or grey, as it was yesterday.

His debut was probably the most discussed ever, and certainly it lived up to expectation with the Connacht centre fronting up to produce a huge defensive shift. His early hit on prop Coenie Oosthuizen was Ireland’s entry point to the game and from that scrum, they turned the screw and never looked back.

Jacob Stockdale scores his sides fourth try Stockdale capped his home debut with a second international try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It was a pity we didn’t get to see the Kiwi native with more ball in hand to unveil that explosive, direct running and offloading game he possesses but he really stood up defensively. 16 tackles is witness to as much, and the special moment he shared with his family and friends at full-time underlined just how much it meant to him.

“Putting on an Irish jersey is a privilege, you don’t take anything for granted and I surely don’t,” he said afterwards.

“Whatever jersey I wear, I always do it with pride and I always be the best player I can be for the squad. It’s a privilege for me to put on the Irish jersey and the amount of supporters and people who were texting me during the week was phenomenal. I can’t thank everybody enough.”

And so it’s on to Fiji next week, with the assertion that the Pacific islanders, and their free-flowing approach, likely to provide more of a test than the Springboks did.

In indicating that he will not call on a replacement for the injured Keith Earls for the final two games of the series, Schmidt said he wanted to give Stockdale, Conway and Sweetnam, who sparkled in a late cameo off the bench, as much exposure at this level as possible.

Well done, dad. 📸 inpho/Dan Sheridan

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“We probably want to optimise the opportunity for the younger wingers to play,” the head coach explained.

“I thought Andrew Conway was super, the amount of energy. It would be great to offer more opportunity there.”

There will also be scope to blood some of the other new faces in the squad with the likes of Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Stuart McCloskey, Chris Farrell and Kieran Treadwell set to be involved in some capacity next Saturday.

And amid all the talk of new caps and positive contributions from the new faces, this was a victory built upon Ireland’s experienced core once again with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray at the heart of it.

Then there was the performances of Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien in the pack which exerted its dominance over the opposition and laid the platform for such a resounding victory.

Optimism abounds and the mood around Carton House will reflect that this week, but the key message afterwards was that this is only a start and there are huge improvements to be made in every facet.

There’s never any risk of Ireland getting ahead of themselves under Schmidt, but Saturday, all told, was a pretty good evening’s work.

Onwards and very much upwards.

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