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Tuesday 7 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Peter O'Mahony and Caelan Doris.
# mauled
Immense performance from POC's Irish forwards at heart of win over Boks
The maul was the key battleground in an absorbing Test in Dublin.

THE SHOTS OF Ireland’s coaches box told the story of Saturday night’s game in Dublin. Time and time again, defence coach Simon Easterby reached across to give forwards coach Paul O’Connell a congratulatory pat on the back after another massive moment at the maul. To be fair, O’Connell sent a few back Easterby’s way.

Ireland’s forwards were immense in a 19-16 win that shows that Andy Farrell’s team can win different types of games, including the most physical ones against the biggest and meanest teams.

The Irish forwards delivered a beautiful blend of aggressive physicality and technical detail in a performance that bore the hallmarks of O’Connell’s coaching. Scrum coach John Fogarty and defence specialist Easterby also harnessed the quality of the Irish forwards in their crucial areas of the game.

So often over the past 18 months, we have spoken about the handling skills of the Irish forwards, but this game was about their battling qualities.

The pre-match questions centered around Ireland’s ability to deal with the might of the Boks in the close-quarters combat. This stemmed from previous defeats for Farrell’s men to big France and England teams, as well as Leinster coming up short in a few high-stakes battles against powerful teams. Ireland answered the doubters on Saturday.

“It builds on our confidence because it’s a different type of game than has been thrown at us over the last couple of years,” said head coach Andy Farrell post-match. “But having said that I think the belief was there anyway.

“The forward pack were excited at what was coming against them and I’ve constantly tried to drill into them that this is where you want to be. You want to be tested, you want to find out about yourself, you want to be of a state of mind that’s ‘Well, it doesn’t get better than this, let’s have a go at it.’ And I’m certain that’s how the forward pack felt this week. I think they came out pretty well.” 

paul-oconnell Dan Sheridan / INPHO Ireland forwards coach Paul O'Connell. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

To a man, the Irish forwards were superb. Caelan Doris showed that he’s one of rugby’s leading number eights at the age of just 24, Josh van der Flier continued his excellent form, while Peter O’Mahony produced a remarkable performance that needed a second watch to fully appreciate.

Lineout leader James Ryan was at his destructive best, while second row partner Tadhg Beirne was his typical blend of skill and savagery. In the front row, Andrew Porter underline his status as an elite loosehead prop, Dan Sheehan showed true grit, and Tadhg Furlong battered Boks for 40 minutes before being forced off injured.

His replacement, Finlay Bealham, slotted in seamlessly again as he helped Ireland to win three second-half scrum penalties and tackled with great accuracy. Similarly, Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Kieran Treadwell, and Jack Conan were punchy off the bench. They proved equal to the Springboks’ ‘Bomb Squad.’

Whatever about individual excellence, the collective effort of the Irish forwards was decisive. Their maul defence was stunning in every sense of the word – the South Africans looked like they couldn’t believe their lack of forward progress in an area that has been such a massive strength for them. There were four massive stops from O’Connell’s charges at the maul, three of them coming inside the opening 25 minutes. They might not be as glamorous as tries, but those moments are equally as crucial.

“Our maul defence was unbelievable,” said Farrell. “When you think about those four or five opportunities that we’ve given them to kick to the corner, you are actually going, ‘Well now, let’s see were we are at now.’

“It probably added to our confidence because of how we dealt with the situation, you know, and then on the back of that I thought our scrum was super solid.”

This wasn’t about Ireland side-stepping the Boks’ biggest weapons. They took them on directly and beat them at their own game, following up on two maul tries in the third Test against the All Blacks last summer with another beauty on Saturday evening.

Ireland’s first score came from a five-metre lineout as O’Mahony claimed Sheehan’s throw and then the wonderfully-constructed maul drove dynamically to the left to guide van der Flier within striking distance. His finish close to the left touchline was deft.

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josh-van-der-flier-scores-a-try Morgan Treacy / INPHO Josh van der Flier scores Ireland's maul try. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“We just tried to pump the legs as fast as we could,” explained van der Flier. “The lads won a good ball. James Ryan was calling and he picked a good slot. We managed to get it rolling forward and they were trying to get it towards the touchline, so it felt cramped in there – like we were close.

“The lads did unbelievable work to keep us going forward and not in touch. There was a little opening and it worked out really well that I was above the line. It was brilliant work by the lads against a very good lineout defence, so that was definitely one we can be very proud of.”

As for the brilliant Irish maul defence, van der Flier explained that O’Connell and the Irish players did much of their preparation through video analysis. 

“In Test weeks, you don’t want to be battering each other too much so there was a bit of physical practice, but a lot of it was meetings and strategy and reviewing each time we defended a lineout against the opposition in training,” said the openside flanker.

“One thing that definitely helped this week was the expertise. You look at the whole pack really, I wouldn’t call myself a lineout expert but the other lads have so much experience against South African teams.

“People like Pete O’Mahony, James Ryan, Kieran Treadwell, Tadhg Beirne. They’ve all played huge games and are experts in terms of lineout. Their expertise and experience really helped us out with making our plan and executing it.”

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