France v New Zealand got this Rugby World Cup off to a convincing start in a feverish atmosphere, Wales v Fiji provided controversy and last-gasp drama before the Fijians then pulled off a well-deserved upset against Australia. But it is Ireland’s narrow 13-8 victory over South Africa that will go down as the tournament’s first real example of classic Test match rugby. And it was fascinating.
The world’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams have shown why they are ranked as such, and now that France’s poster boy Antoine Dupont’s broken cheekbone has become a national concern, it’s hard to argue that Both are not superior to everyone else in the tournament.
If this competition was indeed a preview of the final and the teams meet again in the same Stade de France in 35 days, then we have something to look forward to.
This was a physical and brutal fight like you’ve never seen before, with 46 finely tuned athletes putting everything on the line but displaying as much skill and finesse as brute force. Every inch counted and the result only came on the very last play of the game when the green Irish wall parried a Springboks strike millimeters from the line before collapsing in relief on the turf at the final whistle.
Their win means Ireland are likely to top Pool B and face New Zealand in the quarter-finals, although every Irishman will be Italian for a day next Friday as they hope the Azzurri pull off the biggest World Cup shock in history against the All-World Cup Black.
Ireland’s curse in the quarter-finals presents a very different hurdle – a very psychological one as Ireland look to overcome the burden of history – but make no mistake: after this performance there is no doubt that they can win this World Cup.
They did what few teams have ever done: matched and even physically surpassed South Africa, as the Springboks’ battered bodies attested as they trudged away at the end. It was somehow fitting that, despite having seven strikers substituted on, the Springboks were unable to force their way over the Irish line at the crucial moment to secure a draw and a chance of victory give.
It was the ultimate declaration of intent from Ireland. The biggest World Cup victory in their history and retaining the world No. 1 ranking was a deserved reward.
The tone in Paris was set just 20 seconds after the opening whistle when Ronan Kelleher made a crunching dump tackle on Damian Willemse that sent him flying backwards. The Springboks responded when Garry Ringrose was spectacularly cleared from a scrum and both teams had set the marker.
What followed for 80 minutes was a level of physicality not seen before at this World Cup, but perhaps unsurprising as the two best teams in the world fought for every inch of the carry, the tackle and the break. It was fascinating Test match rugby and if anyone claims “the game has gone soft” as authorities try to prioritize players’ welfare when it comes to head contact and concussions, just show them a video of this most intense of all competitions.
The brilliant Bundee Aki – already at the start of the World Cup in runs, meters gained, defenders beaten, dominant tackles and line breaks – was once again leading the way. He was Ireland’s go-to man on crash ball carries in the first period, where he would inevitably cross the gain line and fall forward on contact. His stand-up tackle on Jesse Kriel, just a meter from his own line, midway through the first half embodied the heart and, above all, the technique with which Ireland fended off their opponents. Shortly afterwards, Caelan Doris grabbed a lost ball after a missed throw and the men in green escaped unscathed.
It was no surprise that Aki was at the center of the game’s first try in the 33rd minute when his 30-yard shot through the middle took the world No. 1 side to the 22-line and his shot put them on the line Goal passed The Springboks’ defense had initially forced a retreat. After Johnny Sexton got within a meter with a dart and a sidestep, Jamison Gibson-Park distributed the ball wide to James Lowe, who passed it on to Mack Hasen for the inbound. The conversion gave them a 7-3 lead that lasted until halftime.
If Aki was the leader by his actions, Lowe led the way with his words – visibly cheering on his teammates after every turnover lost or penalty won, and celebrating passionately when he himself put the ball away early on, to the delight of a cheering crowd.
And the predominantly Irish crowd was a weapon for Andy Farrell’s men throughout as Lowe, Aki and Sexton waved to them to add to the noise after another crucial loss of possession in the 22nd minute after Faf de Klerk’s monster penalty hit the crossbar had scored and was caught by the chasing South African shortly after half time. The atmosphere was almost as cauldron-like as it was on the opening night in the same stadium when the hosts beat the All Blacks. Certainly, the rough rendition of zombie of The Cranberries after the final whistle was echoed Free from desire rang that Friday evening at the Stade de France.
The 7-1 imbalance between the forwards and backs on the Springbok bench made headlines leading up to the game and they only waited until the 47th minuteTh Minute to release new reserves. The strategy was immediately vindicated as the new men helped the field fragment an Irish scrum in the 22 area before the ball was scattered wide and Cheslin Kolbe was able to drive over it in the corner, although Ireland quickly regained the lead as they took a scrum penalty, took possession of the other end and let Sexton’s boots do the rest.
Jack Crowley scored another late three-pointer after the skipper had departed and it was the Irish field that was stronger, capping things off with the last maul defense showing the courage to take the glory.
But in some ways it was the shoe that would ultimately prove crucial. If there is a clear Achilles heel in this physical, well-coached South African team, it is their kick off the tee. De Klerk missed two penalties from distance, while Manie Libbok, who had half the ball, was even more egregious, missing a much easier penalty and converting it extremely well.
When the margins are that good it makes all the difference and the decision to call up fly-half Handre Pollard as an injured replacement for hooker Malcolm Marx seems a smart move. This emergency window may need to be smashed, at least as a bench replacement once we reach the knockout stages.
But that’s a thought for another day – on this evening at the Stade de France, the credit goes to Ireland, who answered many questions in the purest of friendlies. A rematch in just over a month with the Webb Ellis Cup on the line? Yes, please.