Johnny Sexton hailed Ireland’s win over South Africa as “right up there” with some of the big pool wins they’ve had in his previous three World Cups, such as beating Australia in Eden Park in 2011 and France in Cardiff four years later, but singled out the atmosphere as the best he’s ever experienced in an Irish shirt abroad.
It’s estimated that 24,000 travelled from Ireland to Paris alone, but the true number – which will probably never be known, not least because of the clash of green-clad supporters – must have been 40,000-plus. Many were singing inside the Stade de France from over an hour before kick-off, and renditions of The Fields bellowed out regularly before the joyous rendition of the Zombies anthem immediately after the full-time whistle
“I’ve said that we’ve had some big days before in terms of results in the pool, but I’ve never, ever seen a crowd like that,” admitted the Irish captain after the compelling, incident-packed 13-8 win over the reigning world champions in front of a 78,542 attendance, which was just shy of the capacity, although there didn’t seem to be a spare seat in the ground.
“Someone said there was 30,000 fans there, but there was no way it was 30,000. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was 60 and they were insane throughout and they gave us the lift that we needed.
“Honestly, it’s not lost on us. We talk about it a lot, about inspiring those people that put their hand in their pocket week after week.
“They probably saved for four years to come here and it is something we refer to all the time and I mean that. We play for them and they gave us the edge tonight, so fair play to them.”
Maintaining the theme, Andy Farrell felt compelled to add: “It isn’t just them, it is the people back home as well. We know that back home is being worked up into a frenzy, you know, and if that is a sign of things that we can get excited about going forward then what a lift that’s going to give us.”
As for rating the scale of the win as “right up there”, Sexton said: “When you play against the reigning world champions, it’s always going to be incredibly tough and it was. They didn’t let us down in terms of the physicality of the game but I thought we fronted up and gave some good stuff ourselves in that regard.
“Yeah, it’s right up there but we’ve got to make it count now. We’ve got some time off this week with the bye week, then we regroup and we’ve got to back it up against Scotland and make sure we do the business to get out of the pool.”
Whatever the technical flaws, the Irish performance oozed character from every pore and Farrell was most pleased with the team’s “resilience”.
“That was a proper game, a traditional game that had absolutely everything. There were ebbs and flows, ups and downs, and how we managed to stay on point mentally, I thought, was fantastic.
“The game was never going to be perfect. First half, I thought we had the rub of the green as far as field position is concerned and probably didn’t capitalise on that a little bit.
“But it was certainly roles reversed in the second half and how we kept our heads, getting those couple of penalties at the end when it really mattered is the big plus side of our performance.”
The pre-match narrative had focused inordinately on the Boks’ 7-1 split on their bench, whereas an unmoved and unflustered Farrell adhered to a traditional 5-3 make-up, and there was no denying the impact of Ireland’s replacements, “like we knew they would” said Farrell.
“They don’t just come on and try to fit in. They come on the field and try add to our performance. The energy they give us was absolutely fantastic and we knew they would because that’s how they train and that’s how they compete for each other.”
In any event, Farrell believes the team should only benefit from coming through such adversity in extending their Irish record to 16 successive wins, albeit they will need to improve.
“It’s wonderful to win, but there’s not much in it between the two sides. We know what that feels like further down the line, to learn those lessons with a win. When you love defending as much as we did in that game, that stands us in good stead.
“What I will say is our defending stands us in good stead as far as wanting to fight for the rest of the competition.
Remarkably, Ireland appear to have emerged unscathed, with Dan Sheehan looking back to his physical best on his delayed World Cup debut after his layoff, and the distinct possibility of Jack Conan being back in the is for the Scottish game in a fortnight.
“No, we’ve been pretty lucky over the last three games,” said Farrell.