Ireland savour hard-fought win over world champions South Africa

Ireland are there to be shot at now but their first assignment since they climbed to the top of the world rankings in the summer was negotiated successfully 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, struggling in particular. But Johnny Sexton had to come off for the last few minutes, nursing an injury through much of the second half. After a horrible first half, enough space was located for each side to score two tries but Ireland were just that bit more composed.

“I thought the character of the side was immense,” said Andy Farrell. “South Africa are a hell of a side. It was a hell of a Test match, which could have gone either way.”

Both sides were brutal with each other throughout, players going down and off right, left and centre. Conor Murray, on his 100th cap, was off after half an hour, limping away alongside Lood de Jager, arm wrapped in his jersey, who joined Stuart McCloskey already in the sanitorium, having been whistled up on the day after Robbie Henshaw’s hamstring injury.

This was not for the faint-hearted. We knew it was not going to be pretty, that it would be suffocating, and that is just about the size of it. One of rugby’s several flaws is its tendency to clam up the higher we climb the ladder – especially when it is teams like these two who reside up there. Top of the world rankings against the world champions means intensity – and neither side has secured its position at the top without a willingness to smother.

In fairness there were attempts to play a bit, more token acknowledgements of another way in the first half, but they were for the most part snuffed out by choreographed brutality. Ireland were the more inclined to throw a few passes, especially cut-outs to the wide channels, only for some brute of a defender to slam into the hapless recipient, or just spook him into failing to gather. Before long the familiar sight of a ball turning its way to the heavens 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 quick, pretty players were at it. Ireland could not capitalise on his absence.

Sexton chipped away with penalties at the start and end of the first half, each score matched by one of the same within a few minutes. Willemse opened South Africa’s account but made a horrible hash of his penalty attempt at the end of the first quarter, so Kolbe stood up to land a simple shot just before half-time.

The second half was greeted with news of the latest withdrawal, another key one, with Tadhg Furlong giving in to the knock he took towards the end of the first half. Finlay Bealham’s introduction did not seem to weaken the scrum, winning a couple of penalties at that set-piece early on, around which Ireland worked in some daylight.

Sexton sent another penalty, eminently kickable, to the corner, and Ireland finally found the tryline, Josh van der Flier touching down just before the driven lineout was bundled into touch.

A few minutes later they were over again, more beautifully 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 set 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 the night follows day. Eben Etzebeth, fearsome creature of the night that he is, found himself in the sun and butchered one pass to scupper an attack but the Springboks scored soon after. Kolbe and Jesse Kriel combined down the right. When 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 tee or hand really costing South Africa, which allowed Sexton to move Ireland more than a score clear with a third penalty in the final 10 minutes. The Springboks crept offside. Sexton tends not to miss when it matters.

Etzebeth redeemed himself with some handling more appropriate to the light on the outside, setting Kurt-Lee Arendse free with five minutes to play. But Kolbe missed the conversion.

Ireland closed out the game. Just as the best side in the world might expect. They are wearing it well.