Ireland are there for the taking now but their first assignment since climbing to the top of the world rankings last summer was successfully negotiated against the toughest opponents they will face this autumn. Still, this win over South Africa took its toll.
In the end, Ireland’s superior class at half-back was the difference, South Africa’s fly-half Damian Willemse particularly struggling. But Johnny Sexton had to come off in the final minutes and nursed an injury for much of the second half. After a dreadful first half, there was enough space for each side to score two tries, but Ireland were just that bit more composed.
“I thought the character on the page was huge,” said Andy Farrell. “South Africa is a hell of a side. It was a hell of a Test match, which could have gone either way.”
Both sides were brutal on each other throughout, players going down and off right, left and centre. Conor Murray, on his 100th cap, was off after half an hour and limped off with Lood de Jager, his arm wrapped in his shirt, joining Stuart McCloskey already in the sanatorium, having been sent off the day after Robbie Henshaw’s hamstring injury.
This was not for the faint of heart. We knew it wasn’t going to be pretty, that it was going to be suffocating, and it’s about as big. One of rugby’s many failings is its tendency to climb the higher we climb the ladder – especially when it’s teams like these two that live up there. The top of the world rankings against the world champions means intensity – and neither side has secured their position at the top without a will to suffocate.
In all fairness, there were attempts to play a little, more symbolic affirmations in a different way in the first half, but they were mostly drowned out by choreographed brutality. Ireland were all the more likely to throw a few passes, especially cut-outs into the wide channels, only for some brutal defender to bundle the hapless receiver, or just scare him into failing to collect. Soon the familiar sight of a ball turning skyward replaced the sporadic artistry.
Notable moments in the first half included a yellow card for Cheslin Kolbe, for tipping Mack Hansen beyond the horizontal. Even the fast, beautiful players were at it. Ireland could not take advantage of his absence.
Sixton struck with penalties at the start and end of the first half, each point matched by one of the same within minutes. Willemse opened South Africa’s account but made a terrible hash of his penalty attempt at the end of the first quarter, so Kolbe stepped up to land a simple shot just before half-time.
The second half was greeted with news of the latest withdrawal, another important one, with Tadhg Furlong succumbing to the knock he took towards the end of the first half. Finlay Bealham’s introduction did not appear to weaken the scrum, winning a couple of penalties at that set-piece early on, around which Ireland worked in daylight.
Sexton sent another penalty, eminently kickable, into the corner, and Ireland finally found the try line, Josh van der Flier touching down just before the driven lineout tied up.
A few minutes later they were over again, more beautiful this time, a rare ray of sunshine. Ireland disrupted a South African ruck and Caelan Doris kept the ball alive. Quick hands between backs and forwards put Jamison Gibson-Park on a mini-break, before the excellent Jimmy O’Brien sent Hansen over.
South Africa took over in the final quarter, as night follows day. Eben Etzebeth, the terror of the night that he is, found himself in the sun and butchered a pass to throw off an attack but the Springboks scored soon after. Kolbe and Jesse Kriel combined down the right. As it swung left again Franco Mostert hit a fine line to reach out for the try.
Kolbe hit the post with the conversion, the lack of a pedigree kicker from the tee or hand really costing South Africa, allowing Sexton to move Ireland more than a point clear with a third penalty in the final 10 minutes. The Springboks sneaked offside. Sixteen doesn’t usually miss when it counts.
Etzebeth redeemed himself with some handling more suited to the lights on the outside, releasing Kurt-Lee Arendse with five minutes to play. But Kolbe missed the conversion.
Ireland closed out the game. Just as the best side in the world would expect. They wear it well.
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