Rugby World Cup: Memorable Ireland victory over South Africa built on splendid defensive line

Tackling accurate and ferocious but ‘that’s not a one-off’, says defence coach Simon Easterby of stout rearguard action

Ireland 13 South Africa 8

In many ways, the Springboks made this incredible game, perhaps the best pool match ever, more their kind of contest. The initial exchanges were like the opening scenes in Gladiator, and so it continued for the entirety of the 80 minutes.

Yet, not only were there hardly any grumbles from either camp after an 11-9 penalty count in Ireland’s favour, despite fears to the contrary, the tackling was accurate as well as ferocious, so there was no television match official referrals, much less any sign of a yellow or a red card. Ala Ridley Scott, Ben O’Keefe just let it flow.

Siya Kolisi, Damian de Allende and RG Snyman were a particular handful. The Boks made 30 dominant tackles to seven, had more gain line success (although never when Bundee Aki was in the vicinity) and restricted Ireland to their slowest ruck speed in the tournament by some margin — 4.83 seconds on average, with only 16 per cent of their rucks recycled in 0-3 seconds.

The Boks also closed the space in the lineouts and launched either one or two of Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert or Pieter Steph du Toit. So, Ireland also lost six of their 18 lineouts, the joint highest of any team in the tournament so far — equal with Romania and Fiji.


A smooth, functioning lineout and quick ruck ball are the lifeblood of Ireland’s attacks. Any other team might have buckled. But Ireland didn’t.

They take as much pride, if not more, in their defence, and protected their line magnificently; Caelan Doris, Aki, Garry Ringrose, James Lowe et al making a host of big defensive plays.

Ireland also put the squeeze back on the Boks when they could. Inside the last 10, when Doris counter-rucked on halfway, and Josh van der Flier scrapped for the ball before Tadhg Beirne kicked downfield and Van der Flier made the follow-up tackle on Jesse Kriel. This led to the scrum penalty with which Jack Crowley made it 13-8 with three seconds left on the shot clock. That was ice-cool.

When holding up the Boks’ catch-and-drive with the game’s last play, it was the ninth turnover won by Ireland. They seized other key moments too, not least when Aki broke through Libbok’s tackle and accelerated into the distance. Despite the lineout wobbles, Sexton then backed his pack, who launched Van der Flier off another five-man variation, and Sexton nearly scored himself when wrapping around Robbie Henshaw before quick long passes by Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe put Mack Hansen away.

“That’s not a one-off,” said defence coach Simon Easterby of the rearguard action. “We’ve done it in New Zealand; we’ve done it in the autumn series last year against South Africa so that doesn’t surprise us. I guess the level of physicality and the brutality of the game these days, that’s something that the players have got to get their heads around and to a man they did that. It was relentless at times, we had a lot of defending to do. We got the reward but there’s lots we could be better at and that’s the feeling in the changing room. Really pleased with a lot of aspects of the performance but we know we have to be better.”

Amid all the fury and fire, the lost lineouts and twice going behind, their body language demonstrated the calmness of winners, even when the setpiece was going askew. They problem-solved as they do, and at scrum time too, which was a battle royale, where the Irish scrum earned six invaluable points albeit there were some ominous onslaughts by the Boks’ pack.

“I was very proud of the lads,” said scrum coach John Fogarty. “Like the game itself, there were such small margins and there were times when we felt in control and there were times when we were under pressure. We had a good plan and I thought the height that we scrummaged off, we were very connected. We were dealing with that weight. But just before half-time you see a movement left and the scrum creaked a little bit. I think half-time there was a reset of mentality and going back to understanding the plan.”

That said, he conceded the second half was “a little bit up and down”, not least when the Boks brought on Ox Nche and co, before Ireland eventually defused the bomb squad.

“That is the most pleasing part, the ability to stay composed when they were really under serious pressure,” said Fogarty. “Sometimes in a game, that can build and is racing in your mind but the lads stayed clear in their heads of what the plan was. And we managed to fight back in that second half.”

He singled out Andrew Porter’s 73-minute shift as “absolutely immense. Doing what he did at scrum time was one thing but to back it up across the field — his defence was excellent, his ability to get off the ground gives people energy, he took a few carries that he needed to make metres in, and he worked unbelievably hard in those carries. We’re very lucky to have someone who is a resilient guy, real physicality but he’s got a huge engine and appetite for the game.”

All the replacements, not least Dan Sheehan, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw, brought palpable energy and again nobody brought more composure than Conor Murray. There were also some big plays and a key pressure-relieving penalty in the jackal inside Ireland’s 22 when the Boks’ pressure was beginning to look uncontainable.

Ireland’s best scrumhalf of all time and at one point the best 9 in the world game, at 34 Murray is now probably the best back-up scrumhalf in the tournament, and that Ireland has ever had.

Scoring sequence: 6 mins Libbok pen 0-3; 33 mins Hansen try, Sexton con 7-3; (half-time 7-3); 51 mins Kolbe try 7-8; 59 mins Sexton pen 10-8; 75 mins Crowley pen 13-8.

Ireland: Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD); Mack Hansen (Connacht/Corinthians), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians), James Lowe (Leinster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College)(captain), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf), Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne), James Ryan (Leinster/UCD, Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution), Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD), Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College). Replacements: Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers) for Ringrose (22-35 and 64 mins), Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne) for Kelleher, Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy) for Ryan (both 53 mins), Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) for Furlong, Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) for O’Mahony (both (64 mins), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen) for Gibson-Park (66 mins), Jack Crowley (Munster/Cork Constitution) for Sexton (73 mins), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster/UL Bohemians) for Porter (75 mins).

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 (Ulster) for Etzebeth, Kwagga Smith (Shizuoka Blue Revs) for Weisse (all 49 mins), Marco van Staden (Bulls) for Kolisi (52 mins), Trevor Nyakane (Racing 92) for Malherbe (63 mins), Deon Fourie (Stormers) for Mbonambi (64 mins), Cobus Reinach (Montpellier) for de Klerk (75 mins).

Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times