Hard-nosed Ireland display sets up victory over South Africa

Rhys Ruddock and Tommy Bowe score tries on epic night at the Aviva Stadium

Ireland 29 South Africa 15

There was an elemental beauty to Ireland’s victory, not in the conventional sense of aesthetically pleasing running lines, or sleight of hand but in the earthy, blue-collar commitment of a relentless work-rate and selfless application and at time a bloody minded resilience that got them through the tough times until they could prise free the physical shackles of their opponents.

Ireland were second best in the scrum, lost a handful of lineouts, and their line led a charmed existence on a couple of occasions in the first half. But they scrapped and scrambled, made their tackles, slowed down Springbok ball and got off the line defensively with a speed that forced errors. In the end the number two side in the world, fresh from a victory over the All Blacks had no answer. They blinked first.

Losing Chris Henry to a virus on the morning of the game might have been a handicap but Rhys Ruddock, a try scorer, produced a monumental performance – carrying, tackling and harrying in an Irish pack that played with plenty of dog. The 35-year-old Mike Ross, out for a month, lasted 74 minutes, a remarkable achievement.


Jack McGrath was penalised three times at the scrum but he was magnificent in every other facet of the game, highlighted in being the team's leading tackler with a ridiculous 17 for a prop. To a man the Irish pack fronted up, led superbly by the indefatigable Paul O'Connell. Devin Toner won lineout, Peter O'Mahony inveigled his way into rucks, Jamie Heaslip carried, Seán Cronin too, while everyone covered the expanse of the pitch.

Jonathan Sexton deservedly won man of the match but there was a surfeit of candidates. The Irish outhalf kicked six from six attempts and managed the game beautifully and not always off the front foot. Conor Murray, brilliant too, the highlight his gorgeous cross-kick for Tommy Bowe's try.

The new midfield creaked once or twice, but it was only that, and Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne deserve massive credit. Simon Zebo worked when things didn't go his way, Rob Kearney was a colossus at fullback and Bowe; well he outshone Bryan Habana in a superb display.

The Springboks will reflect on why they didn’t convert dominance into points, particularly in the second 20 minutes of the opening half. The answer was basic errors, as they snatched at opportunities. They can’t have any complaints because when they came back to 13-10, there was 23 minutes left but from that point on, Ireland’s spirit and superior accuracy, tenacity and vision was decisive.

The monsoon rains of the morning and early afternoon gave way to a clear, crisp Dublin skyline, a relief for both the teams and spectators alike, although the number of turnovers and basic errors in the opening 40 minutes can partially be explained by a greasy surface and wet ball.

The feral nature of the collisions also put a premium on passing accuracy as the line speed of both defences was aggressive, forcing mistakes and a certain anxiety as players tried to offload in the tackle, one that boasted a high risk factor.

The South Africans looked the more threatening in possession, largely because of their set piece dominance. They turned over three Irish lineouts in the half and twice McGrath was penalised at the scrum, albeit that the Leinster prop fired the first salvo in his duel with Jannie du Plessis by forcing the Springbok tighthead to drop his bind. It was from this transgression that Sexton posted Ireland’s first points with a penalty on eight minutes.

Toner and Heaslip were Ireland's primary ball winners out of touch but the home side couldn't get enough fast, off-the-top possession to launch their three-quarter line. In contrast Victor Matfield masterminded the Springboks 100 per cent return during that period out of touch.

The fact that the visitors were able to win their own ball comfortably meant that their driving maul was a factor and could have led to a couple of scores. Twice within half a dozen metres of the Irish line the South African scrumhalf Francois Hougaard fumbled the ball to provide Ireland with an unexpected respite.

The home side had reason to be grateful to visiting centre Jan Serfontein who gave away a couple of penalties and whose unsympathetic pass deep inside the Irish 22 on a switchback cost his team a glorious opportunity. Hooker Bismarck du Plessis was another culprit, twice penalised for ruck offences, when his side had territory and momentum.

Both sides struggled to find space with one or two exceptions, the primary one the South African fullback Willie le Roux. Every time he touched the ball, he enjoyed a positive impact, in his distribution and also his ability to slalom past would-be tacklers. It took a superb, try-saving tackle from Sexton to deny him at one point.

When Le Roux, rather than Handre Pollard was in at first receiver, or given time on the ball, the South Africans presented a far greater threat. Le Roux's Irish counterpart Kearney, belying his injury layoff, was the other back to catch the eye, both in the authoritative manner in which he fielded high balls and one beautiful inside break that made 25 metres.

Ireland tried to hang onto possession and work through phases but progress was often lateral and so Sexton and Murray had to resort to the aerial route to try and earn field position. The Springboks would have been unhappy with a paltry return of three points from possession and territory in the half. Pollard kicked one from two opportunities; the visitors opted to punt two eminently kickable penalties to the corner but were undermined by errors.

Despite one or two hairy moments, Ireland’s defensive cohesion was impressive for the most part, especially with a new midfield.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt would have wanted his side to provide quicker ruck ball and also a little more dynamism with the rolling maul from lineouts, which had one or two bright moments, on the resumption and he got his wish with the latter one minute after the re-start.

Henshaw spotted space in behind the Springbok defence and his sumptuous raking 60-metre diagonal kick forced the visitors to kick the ball into touch five metres from their own line. Toner won the lineout, the set was perfect and Ruddock barrelled over through the guts of the ruck with the South Africans marked absent.

Sexton kicked a superb conversion and at 13-3, the home side had established a strong position. The Springboks were always going to respond and did so through two areas that they had been dominant in the first half. McGrath fell foul of Roman Poite at a scrum just outside the Irish 22, Pollard punted to the corner and from Matfield's take at the lineout, the set for the maul was perfect and Marcell Coetzee trundled over the Irish line.

Pollard kicked an excellent conversion and at 13-10, South Africa had momentum on the scoreboard and on the pitch. Ireland faced an aptitude test, mental and physical and they came through with flying colours. Sexton punished Vermeulen's high tackle on Heaslip with three points and then South Africa were reduced to 14 players when replacement hooker Adriaan Strauss received a yellow card for catching Kearney in the air.

Sexton’s flawless place-kicking continued on 70 minutes with an assured strike to put Ireland 19-10 ahead and then two minutes later there was a thunderous ovation as Murray’s beautifully judged cross-kick, found bounced kindly for Bowe inside the Springbok 22 and he powered his way over. The Irish outhalf’s conversion from close to the touchline reflected the calibre of his man-of-the match performance.

Schmidt emptied the bench – Payne's leg injury the only worry – and one of the cavalry Ian Madigan thumped over a long-range penalty to put Ireland 29-10 in front; JP Pietersen's late try, scant consolation for the visitors.

A victory for guts, character, tremendous resilience in defence and the willingness to expend every drop of energy in defence of their line: oh, and when opportunities arose the accuracy to execute. A brilliant evening’s work against the number two ranked side in the world.

Scoring sequence – 8 mins: Sexton penalty, 3-0; 22: Sexton penalty, 6-0; 37: Pollard penalty, 6-3. Half-time: 6-3. 41: Ruddock try, Sexton conversion, 13-3; 57: Coetzee try, Pollard conversion, 13-10; 61: Sexton penalty, 16-10; 70: Sexton penalty, 19-10; 72: Bowe try, Sexton conversion, 26-10; 78: Madigan penalty, 29-10; 79: Pietersen try, 29-15.

IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Seán Cronin, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Paul O'Connell (capt); Peter O'Mahony, Rhys Ruddock, Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: Richardt Strauss for Cronin (58 mins); T O'Donnell for O'Mahony (71 mins); Dave Kilcoyne for McGrath ; Mike McCarthy for Toner; Ian Madigan for Sexton; Felix Jones for Kearney; R Ah You for Ross (all 73 mins); E Reddan for Payne (77 mins).

SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux; Cornal Hendricks, Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers (capt), Bryan Habana; Handré Pollard, Francois Hougaard; Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis; Eben Etzebeth, Victor Matfield; Marcell Coetzee, Tebo Mohoje, Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: Schalk Burger for Mohoje (47 mins); JP Pietersen for Hendriks (49 mins); Adriaan Strauss for B du Plessis (50 mins); Cobus Reinach for Hougaard (57 mins); Bakkies Botha for Matfield (62 mins); Trevor Nyakane for Mtawarira; Pat Lambie for Pollard (both 67 mins); Coenie Oosthuizen for J du Plessis; B du Plessis for Coetzee (both 71 mins). Yellow card: Adriaan Strauss (66 mins).

Referee: Romain Poite (France)