Ireland 13; South Africa 8
This Pool B top of the table clash eschewed the total rugby manual and instead became a battle of alpha males looking for superiority in a fascinatingly brutal yet strangely brilliant 80 minutes of warfare which elevated this World Cup in Paris with its compulsive offering on Saturday night.
World Cup champions versus No 1 team in the globe - the status of the two titans alone was enough to have the rugby world engrossed at the outcome.
That Ireland came out top in this arm-wrestle, thereby continuing their winning run to 16 games, showed how much Andy Farrell’s squad has grown under his tutelage these past 30 months.
They have become a team that were unable to handle hype to one that positively welcomes it; a team that similarly wants things to go wrong in the heat of battle so that they can work out under pressure how to make it right on the night.
And boy did things go wrong in the first 20 minutes in the Stade de France with our best weapon - the line-out, malfunctioning to the power of four out of four. The Irish at the match as spectators reported that the South African supporters visibly relaxed at this juncture as they predicted an easy night for the holders while Ireland seemed to return to type on the big stage.
Even when the ‘Boks took the pragmatic approach and kicked a penalty to go 3-0 up instead of seeking to follow Ireland in kicking to the corner in search of a try, Ireland refused to panic. Yes, it took fantastic defending by Garry Ringrose and Caolan Doris to prevent a certain try which which have put our opponents a probable 10-0 to the good. Had that happened, things may have gone differently but it is part of this Ireland make-up to solve problems and then go back at the opposition - but this time only harder.
That they had breached the Sprinkbols previously impregnable try-line before half-time (they last conceded a touchdown four years ago at the semi-final stage) and resumed control of a game of tight margins speaks volumes for the ability of this side to think on its feet and move on.
Even when the so-called “bomb squad” arrived (SA had seven forwards and one back in their replacement division), Ireland buckled a little to concede a try but still had the nous to vary their game so that the fresh forwards themselves had battle to face which drew them out of their comfort zone.
That led to two penalties which both talisman Johnny Sexton and his late replacement Jack Crowley converted on top of Mack Hansen brilliant first-half try which Sexton added the points to and insure our 13 points was too much for their early penalty and unconverted second-half touchdown.
After the game, many pointed to the errant kicks of stand off Manie Libbok and scrum-half Faff de Klerk (an estimated 11 points left off the scoreboard) and said if the two sides meet again that kicking machine Handre Pollard will be on board the holders’ No 10 position by then to ameliorate the dearth of accuracy from the boot.
That would be too simplistic a summation of what happened as normally Ireland could have expected at least another try during the time their line-out calls were off radar.
Yes, the next game, possibly the World Cup final between the pair will be a different game, but in a clash of first among equals, that is only to be expected.
There is no doubt that the three-time Webb Ellis Cup winners will now go away, take stock and come back an even more formidable force; equally there is no doubt that psychologically Ireland will benefit greatly from coming out tops against a rugby force that managed to dismantle the All Black less than a month ago in the final warm-up for the two power houses to this competition.
This blockbuster had twists and turns but in the heel of the hunt two men, skipper Sexton and the player of the tournament so far Bundee Aki helped Ireland find a way to win.
Andy Farrell’s squad will enjoy the early part of this week before knuckling down to the next task at hand - Scotland, something of a dark horse in this group who are well capable of taking advantage of any slackness in Ireland’s preparations should the men in green start to believe the hype around their performances so far.
That game in 10-days time in Paris will guarantee us first place should we win even without a bonus point. If that is the way things turn out, the likely clash facing us at the quarter-final stage will be New Zealand with South Africa taking on France in the other mouth-watering clash from that side of the draw.
South Africa are the world’s finest at depriving teams of time and space and hitting them with such force that they knock the stuffing out of even the strongest of foes.
Ireland took all this and a bit more on the chin yet had the slick backline moves to have the South Africans scrambling desperately for cover as Hugo Keenan came within a whisker of the try-line.
They didn’t panic when the defense came out on top and with a blistering Aki burst up the centre, our defense turned into attack and from the resultant penalty, we went about breaching their honored try-line.
Second rower Tadhg Beirne claimed Kelleher’s throw with aplomb and from here to Hansen gliding over, well rehearsed maneuvers were called into play.
The bustling Peter O’Mahony and Aki combined to allow Caelan Doris to knock on the door. Recycled ball saw Sexton dummy before checking our the strength of their midfield defense. It was a case for South Africa of all hands to the pump to stop him only inches from the whitewash but Ireland were not to be denied as Jamison Gibson-Park fed the hungry for work James Lowe whose long pass quickly took away the cover as Hansen collected and dived over to give us a 7-3 lead.
Hardly had the second half settled down after seven minutes of careful play than South African Head Coach Jacques Nienaber deployed his 'bomb squad' hoping they would disrupt the control Ireland were managing to exert on his starting XV.
Within minutes, Ireland conceded a penalty deep in their own territory and when Libbok found Kolbe with a perfect pass, it allowed the winger to run in without a glove being put on him. Libbok failed with the conversion but even so the South Africans were now 8-7 to the good with almost half an hour left to play.
While Ireland’s scrum seldom gets lauded, it showed mighty resilience to win a scrum penalty thanks to loose head Andrew Porter which Sexton converted to put us back in front 10-8.
From there to the finish it was as tight and fraught as a top level match could be with both sides having opportunities to grab the initiative at vital times.
When Libbok pushed his penalty wide, it felt like a reprieve and the introduction of Robbie Henshaw, Finlay Bealham and Ryan Baird to add fresh legs to the already introduced hooker Dan Sheehan and lock Iain Henderson gave a new energy to the boys in green. That and the big Irish crowd singing “The Fields of Athenry" made it sound more like Lansdowne Road than Ellis Park as Ireland, thanks to young Crowley increased their lead to five points with a second penalty of the half to lead and ultimately win 13-8.
That was possible because De Klerk’s brace of long-range penalties just failed to hit the target.
Conor Murray came on for Gibson-Park and won a lot of admirers with the cool way he took us through those last perilous minutes with the coolness of the veteran he has now become.
It was helter-skelter in this autumn swelter but aided by a rub of the green and a now benign ref, we got over the line to tumultuous cheers from the huge Irish galleries among the 78,000 in the stands.
The good thing about this win is that it was a slender one, with plenty of weaknesses exposed in our play. Perfect then for Farrell and his cohorts to go to work on in the coming weeks when we get ready for some of the biggest days of our rugby watching lives. It starts with Scotland at the Stade on Saturday week (Oct. 7)
Ireland: H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Lowe; J Sexton (capt), J Gibson-Park; A Porter, R Kelleher, T Furlong, J Ryan, T Beirne, P O'Mahony, J Van der Flier, C Doris Replacements: D Sheehan, F Bealham, D Kilcoyne, I Henderson, R Baird, C Murray, J Crowley, D Henshaw.
Farrell hails Irish heroes
in game of small margins
Ireland Head Coach Andy Farrell hailed his conquering heroes following their massive win in a slugfest against World Cup holders South Africa in Paris on Saturday night.
"Wow, that was some atmosphere and if that's a sign of things to come. We're going to be looking forward to the next game and hopefully that pushes us on in the competition," he said with a big smile on his face.
Assessing the performance he went on: "It was the type of game that we all thought it was going to be. It was attritional, obviously, and a game of two halves. I thought we dominated field position in the first half and didn't really convert the pressure that we had. It's probably the same as far as South Africa are concerned.
"I think we all know that there were two good teams going at it and there's not much between them,” he emphasized.
He also doused a note of caution lest his charges get carried away in mid-tournament.
“This is just the next stage in our journey. It's a pool stage win and that's what it is. I kept on saying that the points on offer against Romania and Tonga were the same. We're glad to keep rolling and get another four points. However, hopefully we can enjoy a few days break because it's come at a nice time.”
His skipper Johnny Sexton claimed the win was "right up there" among his biggest days in green.
Speaking about the opposition, he pointed out: "They're an outstanding team and really well coached. They make life so difficult for you at set-piece, breakdown and the physical part of the game. It was a proper Test match and they’re always decided on the bounce of a ball or a kick here or there.
"We’re delighted to get the win. I think we were a little bit lucky at times as well, but hopefully we’ll keep improving.
"Hopefully the difference with this one is that we’ll be able to use it to go further than we have before.”
However he added with caution: "It won’t mean anything if we don’t get a result in our last game. We have to go and do it against Scotland again."