Two decisions in the first half demonstrated Ireland’s mindset, the strength of character and the belief that oozes from this team. The first was a gamble that failed to come up trumps, the second a brave call on the strength of the 30 minutes between the brace of pivotal moments in the half.
On two minutes, Ireland won a penalty and after a brief consultation between captain Johnny Sexton and James Ryan, the outhalf thumped the ball towards the corner. It was a statement of intent but as is the case when not taking the three points and doubling down, it’s imperative to execute.
South African flanker Pieter Stephen du Toit got to the ball first, the try scoring opportunity ruthlessly cancelled. It served as a huge adrenaline shot for the Springboks and encouraged them to robustly compete on Irish ball; and how they did.
What followed from an Irish perspective was a lineout that malfunctioned horribly, hooker Ronan Kelleher looking to put pace on his throws with a lower flight path to try and clear the South African pods. Three went abegging in jig time, denying Ireland an opportunity to benefit from the hard work they were getting through in other facets of the game.
Every failure was another psychological ‘w’ for the Springboks, but as Paul O’Connell said in his prematch observations, he loves the way that this team solves problems on the pitch. And that’s what they did to a large extent. They simplified matters, went to Peter O’Mahony, were a little more dynamic across the ground.
On 33 minutes, Ireland could have opted to take the points but again went “all-in” after winning the penalty. Sexton barely paused before drilling the ball into the corner. The winner of this mini duel, the pivotal moment, one that would be talked up or down depending on the outcome; hindsight determining folly or a moment of inspiration.
It wasn’t an easy throw and Kelleher deserves great credit for hitting Beirne and Ireland now needed to make the possession count. There were many contributions, big and small but arguably the three most telling was Sexton’s game intelligence to cut back against the grain as the Springboks raced to cut off what they thought would be Ireland going wide.
Hugo Keenan’s clearout at the ensuing ruck, awkward to get right because it was so close to the posts, ensured that his team retained the ball and then James Lowe’s speed of thought and hand to spot the onrushing defender and get his pass away to Mack Hansen.
The winger’s soft-shoe shuffle perilously close to the end-line brought a collective spike to the blood pressure of Irish fans in Paris and at home. So many things happened in the second half, the Springboks wasting several chances with the placed ball but those two episodes in the first half in some respects define this team and their coaches.
They are empowered to play, to make decisions and they possessed the bottle, the fortitude to choose the harder option. The performance is an irrelevance for now. Ireland have beaten the world champions in the Rugby World Cup. It has to be savoured. Paris belongs to Ireland, for one night anyway.