It was just over exactly four years ago that we took up residence of this corner of Country Living, and there are a few similarities between then and now.

That first column looked to Ireland hosting New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium, a game they would win to move to within touching distance of the All Blacks at the top of the world rankings.

Indeed, Joe Schmidt’s side ascended to top spot as the Rugby World Cup approached in 2019, but unfortunately the peak for that team had come the previous autumn and a rematch with the coach’s native country in the quarter-finals proved to be the end of the road for some key players and Schmidt himself.

Four years on, Ireland have repeated the trick of beating the reigning world champions in Dublin and, as enjoyable as it was for everybody, there will always be the nagging feeling in the back of the mind until the World Cup last-eight hurdle is overcome.

There is no doubting the fact that Gibson-Park is the best scrum-half at Ireland’s disposal at the moment

At the same time, there is a sense that the current good run of form is more sustainable – though a group-stage game against the Springboks next year will be a different proposition. The approach taken by Ireland was refreshingly adventurous.

At 6-6 early in the second half, Ireland were awarded a penalty and, in such a close game against elite opposition, one might have expected the decision to be to take the three points but instead Johnny Sexton opted for a lineout that led to the opening try by Josh van der Flier.

When that was quickly followed by Mack Hansen touching down, they had a firm command of the game.


There might be some concern in the way that South Africa came back so strongly as they brought on their replacements – Ireland will need depth in every position if they are to make an impact at the World Cup, but that is not something that can magically happen overnight.

It should also be noted that starting Conor Murray for what was his 100th cap (a superb achievement, considering only seven other male internationals had previously done it) allowed the introduction of Jamison Gibson-Park from the bench.

There is no doubting the fact that Gibson-Park is the best scrum-half at Ireland’s disposal at the moment and he was able to bring control to proceedings when South Africa looked to turn the screw in the closing stages.

Saturday’s clash with Fiji should allow the possibles to show the management that they can be called upon in moments of high importance, while the final match of the autumn series, at home to Australia on November 19, will be another test of Ireland’s consistency.

Ultimately, it is the ability to produce big performances on a regular basis that set the best teams apart from everybody else.

Jersey clash

Finally, it wasn’t so calamitous as to cause a player to pass to an opponent but the jerseys situation last Saturday evening left a lot to be desired.

From an Irish point of view, South Africa are the only other top-tier nation with whom there is a colour-clash and, when their shirts are a darker shade of green than Ireland’s, it stands to reason that Ireland’s alternative should be a light colour – white, grey, sky blue, yellow or pink, anything to provide contrast.

The choice of a navy kit with mint green flashes was obviously made with commercial sensibilities in mind, but function should always outweigh form – in terms of aiding the players making split-second decisions on the pitch and the viewing public.

Rugby is different to soccer, hurling or football in that the two teams are generally behind the ball and you know who is on which side, but on Saturday, it wasn’t always clear on the wide shots which players were playing for who.

What makes the situation worse is that we had a similar scenario in 2017, when Ireland wore a dark grey kit at home to South Africa. One would hope that World Rugby will be strict in ensuring there is distinction when the countries meet in the World Cup.

A day of Rickening

From time to time, this column has featured Keith Ricken and our admiration for him.

Manager of the Cork team that won the All-Ireland U20 football title in 2019, he was appointed as senior manager at the end of last year but unfortunately had to step down in the spring due to health issues.

An ‘ordinary’ person might have stepped back fully from any activity, but Keith is certainly extraordinary and he decided to get involved in co-ordinating the Cork U15 and U16 football development squads.

Possessed of a bulging contacts book, he has been building an army of bodies to assist him and so, when the call came to this quarter to serve as a selector for the south-east regional side, there was no way we could refuse – once domestic permission was granted.

Last Sunday in Bishopstown was the first involvement for us and there was a sense of being the new boy in school, but thankfully the other coaches or selectors were welcoming rather than being dismissive of the lack of a strong playing CV.

To see so many players involved was heartening – many of them will never play for Cork but at worst they will come back to their clubs as better players.

Keith’s methods are more carrot than stick – showing players what they can do better rather than telling them what they did wrong – but he’s not averse to a verbal jolt: “If the Department of Social Welfare saw that drill, they’d take the parents’ allowance away from your mothers and fathers.”

The session finished with him lining up the players wearing bibs in front of those not wearing bibs – one might have expected some kind of punishing run but instead it was a wheelbarrow race, an understated but fun way to test technique and teamwork.

When Cork do finally end the county’s wait for a senior All-Ireland, Keith probably won’t be the manager, but his fingerprints will be all over it thanks to the players produced.