Anyone with even the remotest interest in Pool B would’ve pencilled in this clash some time ago: defending world champs and all-round enforcers the Springboks up against the No. 1 ranked side and, arguably, tournament favourites Ireland. Both came into the match having earned two wins apiece, with Ireland edging the Boks into the top pool spot courtesy of two four try bonus points to one.
Both sides are at this stage all but assured progression to the quarters, but this was no dead rubber. Certainly there’s bragging rights and perhaps a marginally more favourable quarter-final draw against the Pool A runners-up (currently Italy, but likely New Zealand) to play for. But more than that, this was a chance for two sides tipped to go all the way to gain an early psychological edge. Neither would want to give too much away, but victory here will stand one in good stead should they meet again in the final.
Two more or less full-strength (as far as are available) lineups were named. The Bokke, taking a day off from drowning puppies, doubled-down on the morally outrageous 7-1 bench split. Given their historic upfront dominance, and knowing backs never get tired (standing about aimlessly, as they do, for most of the match), South Africa were clearly relying on the infamous bomb squad to bash, recycle, and bash the Irish pack again into submission.
It fell, therefore, to the pure as the driven snow Paddies (led by the famously righteous and serene Jonathan Sexton) to fight the good fight for the soul of rugby. Scrum-half Jamie Gibson-Park was the only change to the starting XV from Ireland’s previous match against Tonga, pushing Connor Murray to the bench. Peter O’Mahony (100) and Bundee Aki (50) would bring up milestones.
Both sides began the match willing to run and test out the defensive fringes. Curiously, Ireland spurned the opportunity for first points, Sexton opting instead to kick for the corner. A misfiring lineout would cruel their chance not only then but repeatedly throughout the first half.
It was the Bokke who drew first blood from the boot of Manie Libbok, and his penalty goal remained the only event to trouble the scorers for some time as the game settled into a wonderful flow of cut-and-riposte. The centre pairings for both sides were particularly incisive, threatening to blow the line open on multiple occasions. It was only fitting, then, that Bundee Aki’s massive 55 metre break set Ireland up to open their account in the 33rd minute, eventually finding Mack Hansen on the right wing for a five pointer. Sexton’s successful conversion consolidated the Paddies’ halftime lead.
As they did against Scotland, the Bokke pack came out of the sheds looking to lay down the law. A scrum penalty put them in position to send Cheslin Kolbe over in the 51st minute, briefly taking the lead. But unlike the poor Jocks, Ireland managed to soak up the hits and maintain some control over proceedings, steadying at the lineout and beginning to regain parity at the scrum. Sexton took advantage to retake the lead approaching the last 20 minutes.
South Africa continued to attack manfully, but the passes weren’t sticking and suddenly they faced lineout malfunctions of their own. Replacement Irish flyhalf Jack Crowley kicked another penalty to put lead beyond three points, but you sensed the match was still there for the taking. Indeed, a last ditch lineout 10 metres out offered the Springboks a chance to steal it at the death. But once again the men in green gave as good as they got, defusing the maul and trapping the ball to let Ben O’Keeffe blow full time on a fantastic match.
The Game Changer
A period around the 50-60 minute mark saw South Africa miss four challenging but very gettable attempts at goal, both Libbok and Faf de Klerk guilty of missing their targets. The Springboks took a narrow lead at this point, but 11 points left out on the park meant they failed to take the game away from Ireland, and their period of forward dominance achieved minimal pay. Ultimately this seemed to frustrate the Boks who, while not completely falling apart, did start to lose fluency as the Irish wrestled back the initiative.
The Man of the Match/Standout Player
For the Springboks, de Allende, Kriel and Willemse were enterprising in the backline, while Franco Mostert was excellent and key to disrupting the Irish lineout early.
For Ireland the pack held their own early but struggled to get over the gainline at times. Wingers Hansen and James Low meanwhile stood up on the defensive edges and ensured the Bokke attack came to nothing more often than not. Bundee Aki, named the official man of the match, has to be my pick also, strong in defence and on the carry all night, and particularly critical to Ireland’s only try of the match.
SOUTH AFRICA 8
Tries: Cheslin Kolbe (51′)
Penalties: Manie Libbok (6′)
Tries: Mack Hansen (33′)
Conversions: Johnny Sexton (35′)
Penalties: Johnny Sexton (59′), Jack Crowley (77′)