South Africa started their campaign for a straight third world cup win today with a match against Ireland. Only the most fanantical Ireland fan would probably have ever believed they could overcome the double world champions but what most of their fans will probably be happy with is that they got this match out the way early and actually did put up a challenge to the South Africans throughout. It also gave Ireland a chance to try players and horses at different positions and it was noticeable just how much the Irish players were moved around throughout the match, with every player except Ruth Shanahan and Dara Mangan playing two positions at some point.
The Ladies section started the match off with a very even first chukka, ending three goals all. Ireland ladies’ section is as strong as it has ever been with the addition of Debbie Harris after she moved to Ireland from the UK two years ago. This is Debbie’s fifth world cup and she seems to get better at every one. Combined with Dara Mangan, Ruth Shanahan and Joanne Lavery, Ireland have a strength and belief that previously they lacked. However, South Africa’s own Ladies in Caley Higgs, Leigh Higgs, Natalie Maclarty and Jacquie Minnaar also look strong. Four years ago Caley and Natalie were very well supported by the more experienced players Jean Hackland and Celia Jacobs but now they have to lead the line for South Afica. They seem more confident than in 2015 and some of their passing today was sublime as they moved the ball around quickly, frustrating the Irish defence who must have felt they were chasing shadows at points.
The men sections squared off in chukka 2 and actually the Irish drew first blood as Seb Chambers seized the first ball and delivered it to Luke Brandon for the opener. South Africa seemed a bit unsettled by the Irish men at first, who definitely came out stronger than the crowd were expecting. However, South Africa did win the second chukka and make the scoreline 7-5 in their favour. After that South Africa calmly continued to score a couple of extra goals every chukka and a particularly strong display in the fourth chukka pretty much buried Ireland’s chances, though they continued to fight and show some good moments to the final hooter when the scoreline read 24-12.
While the Irish ladies were expected to be a tough challenge for any team, the Irish men were more of an unknown but they definitely won some fans amongst the Australian crowd today. Luke Brandon and Connor Doyle both wriggled out of some tight corners when they were in the number 1 shirts, just when the crowd was expecting Jannie Steenkamp or Travis Timm to lay some serious timber on them and neither of them misssed much in front of the posts or on the ground. Seb Chambers was calm and collected throughout and has a dangerously quick and strong swing on him, which ultimately did unload Graham Maclarty in the final chukka after a couple of failed attempts. Stephen Nuzum is slightly reminiscent of the great Aidan McDonagh, there is a wildness and unpredictably to him that means you are never quite sure if he is about to do something spectacular or whether it is all about to go horribly wrong. Certainly one of the best moments today was when, in the second chukka, he grabbed the ball in his own defensive area after Graham Maclarty misssed a pick up (proving he is human), charged out of the 30 yard area, made the bounce but lost his reins and therefore control of his horse but just carried on his run straight down the pitch to deliver a pass to Conor Doyle at the 30 yard line for Conor to score from, while Stephen himself careered across in front of the goal almost blocking the ball from going in. After this he was made to tie a knot in his very long reins by chief umpire SStewi Neal who said they were too long (editor’s note: We aren’t sure if there is actually an IPC rule on rein length, we have never seen one but you could probably justify it on umpire’s discretion for safety reasons)
However, regardless of how much Ireland might have surprised elements of the crowd, South Africa looked very strong and also didn’t really look like they really had to waste too much energy to assure themselves of victory, particularly in the men’s section. Their passing was pretty much flawless throughout and they conserved their horses brilliantly, particularly Graham Maclarty who at points seemed to be crawling down the pitch but somehow still made sufficient progress to avoid any Irish tackles. He wasted little time on area work, simply flicking the ball over the top if the number three was in the way for too long, though he did misss one straight on overarm shot at goal, which was quite suprising but by then the game was already safe. Travis Timm was brilliant in the second and third chukkas, apart from one slightly overweight pass early on everything else hit its target and some of the pick ups he produced were unbelievable.
Ultimately the result was no great surprise but the lack of atmosphere for the match was slightly more surprising, after the excitement that met any South Africa goal or victory four years ago in Shongweni. Either South Africa’s fans were very quiet as they felt cheering was unnecessary or they haven’t got many travelling supporters over with them. Their goals were met with a fairly hushed silence, while Ireland’s were cheered by an Australian crowd, who no doubt quite enjoyed seeing a team score against their biggest rival. What that same crowd will be like if South Africa end up facing Australia in the final we can only imagine!
Next up from South Africa is New Zealand, who could present a very different challenge, while Ireland take on the UK in a match they know they must win if they want to make the semi finals.