When looking at some of the reaction from the media and their supporters, you would think that Ireland made up for the Rugby World Cup failure with their opening Six Nations victory over France on Friday night.
But it is hard to look past the fact that the French played nearly an hour with 14 men after South African-born lock Paul Willemse first received an early yellow card, and then a second around the half-hour mark to be sent off permanently at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome.
So, the 38-17 score-line slightly flattered the Irish, especially as France had shown real resolve to fight back to make it 17-10 by halftime.
The one-man shortfall eventually took its toll as the Irish started finding gaps in the defence and grew more confident as the passes started to stick.
Captain Peter O’Mahony got it right in his assessment of the performance when he told ITV afterwards: “We’re not going to get carried away here. We’ve certainly got a bit of momentum. It was a good performance, which is what you want to start off with in a campaign like this. We’ll go and analyse it, and we want to get better. That’s what we want to do and kick on.”
But there will be plenty for Springbok boss Rassie Erasmus to chew on from the game ahead of the two-Test series against Ireland in July, with matches scheduled for Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on July 6 and Kings Park in Durban a week later.
Here are five pointers that the world champions may have taken out of the Six Nations encounter as part of their preparations for their opening Test of 2024...
1 Close down Jamison Gibson-Park
The Ireland scrumhalf was a livewire throughout, varying his play smartly between a few early box-kicks and then injecting some pace into the Irish attack with his speed and quick service from the base.
The former Auckland Blues No 9 is the true heartbeat of this Irish outfit, and showed his class to round off the opening try after a powerful surge by Bundee Aki.
But Gibson-Park is unlikely to enjoy so much space and freedom to do his thing against the Boks, where Pieter-Steph du Toit and Co will hunt him down.
2 Sort out breakdown mess
While you could argue that English referee Karl Dickson gave them too much leeway, Ireland were able to make a real mess of the breakdowns that made it difficult for France to generate momentum with ball-in-hand.
Whether it’s Josh van der Flier, Andrew Porter or Peter O’Mahony, there always seems to be an Irish player rolling away to or caught on the wrong side of the ruck.
Perhaps the French missed Antoine Dupont’s streetwise captaincy as well in that regard, but it is something that Bok skipper Siya Kolisi will no doubt remind the referee of.
It would also mean that the South Africans need to get more numbers to the breakdowns to clean-out the Irish forwards, in order to generate quick ball for what is a lethal backline.
3 Attack the scrums
Despite boasting supposedly two of the best props around in Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong, the Irish didn’t gain clear scrum dominance – even when the French pack went down to seven after Paul Willemse’s cards.
In fact, when Peter O’Mahony was yellow-carded in the second half, the French drilled the Irish and won a scrum penalty.
So, considering the rich resources the Springboks have, the set-piece is a definite area that they can attack in July.
Steven Kitshoff’s move to Ulster will aid that cause as he will get a better understanding of the Irish approach to scrums.
But Ox Nche is still firing on all cylinders for the Sharks, Frans Malherbe will make his comeback from a back injury for the Stormers in their next URC match on February 17, and the Bulls duo of Gerhard Steenekamp and Wilco Louw have been bossing all-comers in the URC and Champions Cup.
4 Keep Bundee Aki and James Lowe in check
Due to their multi-phase attacking style, Ireland do try to create space for inside centre Bundee Aki and left wing James Lowe to operate in.
Aki is devastating when he has room to use his strength, as he showed with a dynamic surge past France No 13 Yoram Moefana and underhand pass to Jamison Gibson-Park for the first try.
The Boks are well aware of his threat, having had to keep him at bay in their World Cup pool clash, where Damian de Allende will have his hands full once more.
The other man to watch out wide is Lowe, the former Waikato Chiefs star. Not only is he hard to bring down with ball-in-hand, but his skill-set extends to defence and a terrific kicking game as well.
He is not shy to get stuck in at the breakdowns, makes excellent reads out wide, forces his way into mauls and is able to mix things up with counter-attacking runs and long kicks downfield.
5 Bomb Squad timing
France left it too late with their second-half substitutions, especially due to Paul Willemse’s two yellow cards, which drained the life out of their forwards.
The usual energy from the likes of Gregory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon and Peato Mauvaka wasn’t particularly evident on Friday night.
French coach Fabien Galthie waited until the 53rd minute to take off the starting front row of Cyril Baille, Peato Mauvaka and Uini Atonio, as well as No 4 lock Paul Gabrillagues, which allowed Ireland to regain the momentum after halftime through Calvin Nash’s try in the 46th minute.
Incidentally, the French replacements had the desired effect almost immediately as a seven-man scrum destroyed the seven Irish forwards after O’Mahony’s yellow card.
Ireland then waited until the 63rd minute to bring on their fresh forwards, and eventually scored the final try off a maul by replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher.
The Bok coaches have always been dynamic around the timing of their replacements – sometimes even bringing on a substitute before halftime – but it will be vital to keep tabs on the forwards’ energy levels to maintain the edge over the pacy Irish.