South Africa 8 Ireland 13
A game between the number one and two sides in the world, and it lived up to its billing on a thunderous Parisian occasion in the Stade de France on Saturday night. It was only a pool game, but it sure sounded and felt like it could have been a final.
Ultimately Ireland showed what a smart and gutsy side they are by beating the Springboks, who as an attacking force are way more rounded than the champions of four years ago.
Given that, this is probably Ireland’s greatest ever World Cup win, and they came through the game seemingly unscathed.
However, they will need all of the two weeks to the Scotland game to recover after a typically bruising examination by the Boks.
One sensed South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus might have been too cute for his own good, and the Boks lack of a proven Test goal-kicker and a specialist back-up hooker cost them as they missed another 11 points off the tee.
They’ll probably rectify that in coming games. In a cracking, unceasingly eventful and absorbing match, they possibly left more chances behind.
But Ireland will improve too, and deserved their win for the bravery of their performance, with and without the ball. Huge performances abounded, not least the outstanding Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Johnny Sexton and the brilliant Bundee Aki. Garry Ringrose made some massive tackles, while the fired up James Lowe and Hugo Keenan had a host of huge moments. There was some telling impact off the bench too, from Conor Murray, Dan Sheehan and Finlay Bealham.
Most teams would have buckled under such remorseless pressure. But Ireland got pressure on the Boks too, staying in the fight even when losing lineouts and collisions.
If they top the pool and face the All Blacks in a quarter-final, one of the key advantages is that it would be like another home match. This was only Ireland’s first World Cup meeting with South Africa, and it’s probably fairly safe to say that there has never been, nor never will be again, so much green in the ground or the French capital.
An estimated 24,000 travelled over from Ireland, and while there was a strong contingent of Springbok supporters it still looked about four to one in Irish tops. Unlike the Aviva, even Ireland’s Call thundered around the cantilever stands.
Paul O’Connell has spoken of how he loves watching this Irish team problem solve, although one wonders how much he enjoyed the first quarter, after which Ireland certainly had plenty of problems. The Boks cranked up the heat in typically ferocious manner in every facet of the game. While the Irish scrum gave one indirect penalty and one direct penalty for early engagements, they never conceded an inch. But the lineout was a different story altogether.
After Ronan Kelleher’s thunderous tackle on Damian Willemse from Sexton’s hanging kick-off and Faf de Klerk’s risky skip pass eluded Cheslin Kolbe, Steven Kitshoff was done for not rolling and to approving roars, Sexton kicked to the corner. But setting the tone for that opening 25 minutes or so, Pieter Steph du Toit picked off Kelleher’s first throw.
Sometimes the Boks threw two men into the air, and including a crooked throw and two more which eluded James Ryan, Ireland effectively lost five of their first eight throws.
Still, after a sixth-minute penalty by Manie Libbok, Ireland’s attacking game kept probing, deft footwork and short passes at times giving them momentum, although it was high-wire stuff, with bodies hit hard just after the ball was released.
Sexton dummied cleverly to release Van der Flier for one carry, and then linked with Ringrose who did superbly to hit Keenan wide out for a strong carry to the line. Jesse Kriel illegally rolled on to Keenan from an offside position to kill the ball, which somehow was missed by referee Ben O’Keeffe. Unluckily from Doris’s ensuing carry, Ringrose’s clearout dislodged the ball.
But then, after a wicked bounce from a De Klerk kick, Ringrose made a try-saving tackle on Kriel, and the Irish defence was given some pummelling. Ringrose returned from a HIA and Sexton recovered from a worrying stinger when each tried to stop the rampaging Damian de Allende. He was held up short of the line, as was Kriel by Ringrose, but his attempted offload off the deck hit Siya Kolisi in the face.
There were big defensive plays by Doris and Lowe, the latter winning a penalty in the jackal after Ryan and Tadhg Beirne tackled Kolisi, and by resorting to four- and five-man lineouts, Ireland problem-solved their Achilles heel.
Cue Aki to set Ireland alight, using his footwork and leg power to beat Libbok before accelerating from the Irish 22 deep into the Boks half. Again going to the corner, a shortened variation launched Van der Flier. . Doris again carried powerfully, and after six phases Sexton worked a well disguised little wrap around Aki before he was tackled just short of the line by Kriel. But from Jamison Gibson-Park’s pass, Lowe’s quick hands put Hansen over and Sexton converted.
They might have had more, but after successfully going to the corner and launching Aki, Ryan was forced into a fumble. At half-time it was only 7-3, but the crowd responded as if watching an epic.
On the resumption, after a counter by Keenan and Hansen, Peter O’Mahony’s pressure on Etzebeth forced another attacking lineout, but Kelleher’s throw to Ryan at the tail was picked off by Etzebeth.
The momentum shifted further when De Klerk’s penalty from halfway came off the upright and was reclaimed by the Boks. Despite Lowe holding up Etzebeth for a turnover, the introduction of Ox Nche and three others had an immediate impact with a powerful scrum before Van der Flier was pinged for fleetingly placing his hands on the deck. A tough call.
With a scrum penalty advantage, Libbok worked a wraparound with De Allende and his long pass put Kolbe over. But despite the latter narrowing the conversion angle as Hansen had done, Libbok missed the two-pointer.
After a Sexton penalty, when Frans Malherbe collapsed a scrum under pressure from Andrew Porter under the posts, Willemse slammed the ball into the ground in frustration after an unforced fumble. In the ensuing stoppage, The Fields of Athenry echoed around the ground like perhaps never before. But Irish ardour was soon dimmed by another powerful Boks scrum.
Cue the green light from the Boks coaching box for a shot at goal, but Libbok missed from just over 40 metres, as would De Klerk again from inside halfway. There was a costly crooked throw five metres from the converted backrower Dion Fourie, as the Boks’ placekicking and refusal to pick another specialist hooker bit them.
RG Snyman was putting dents in the Irish defence with his running and offloading, but Doris counter-rucked tellingly. Van der Flier won a turnover and Beirne hacked down field before Van der Flier followed up with the tackle on Kriel. Talking about digging deep.
By then Sexton had taken a sufficient buffeting from Du Toit. When a drop kick from his replacement Jack Crowley was deflected, the Boks’ early engagement enabled the young outhalf to make it a five-point lead with just four seconds left on the clock.
There was all sorts of manic toing and froing in the endgame before Libbok drilled a penalty from halfway to the corner, but an imposing drive was eventually stopped and held up.
Some win. Cue Zombie by the Cranberries, which will be how many will have already felt by then and certainly by later into the Parisian night. It was both draining and emotional.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 6 mins: Libbok pen, 3-0; 33: Hansen try, Sexton con, 3-7 (half-time, 3-7); 51: Kolbe try, 8-7; 59: Sexton pen, 8-10; 77: Crowley pen, 8-13.
SOUTH AFRICA: Damian Willemse (Stormers); Kurt-Lee Arendse (Bulls), Jesse Kriel (Yokohama Canon Eagles), Damian de Allende (Saitama Wild Knights), Cheslin Kolbe (Tokyo Sungoliath); Manie Libbok (Stormers), Faf de Klerk (Yokohama Canon Eagles); Steven Kitshoff (Ulster), Bongi Mbonambi (Sharks), Frans Malherbe (Stormers); Eben Etzebeth (Sharks), Franco Mostert (Mie Honda Heat), Siya Kolisi (Toulouse, capt), Pieter-Steph du Toit (Toyota Verblitz), Jasper Wiese (Leicester Tigers).
Replacements: Ox Nche (Sharks) for Kitshoff, RG Snyman (Munster) for Mostert, Jean Kleyn (Munster) for Etzebeth, Kwagga Smith (Shizuoka Blue Revs) for Weisse (all 49 mins); Marco van Staden (Bulls) for Kolisi (52), Trevor Nyakane (Racing 92) for Malherbe (63); Deon Fourie (Stormers) for Mbonambi (64); Cobus Reinach (Montpellier) for De Klerk (75).
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Ronan Kelleher (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).
Replacements: Robbie Henshaw (Leinster) for Ringrose (HIA, 22-35 mins & 64 mins); Dan Sheehan (Leinster) for Kelleher, Iain Henderson (Ulster) for Ryan (both 53); Finlay Bealham (Connacht) for Furlong, Ryan Baird (Leinster) for O’Mahony (both 64); Conor Murray (Munster) for Gibson-Park (66); Jack Crowley (Munster) for Sexton (73); Dave Kilcoyne (Munster) for Porter (75).
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (NZ).
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), James Doleman (NZ).
TMO: Brendon Pickerill (NZ).