Some sporting occasions continue to reverberate long after the final whistle. Ireland’s 13-8 win against South Africa definitely falls into that category, for a host of reasons. As well as being a great game that qualified instantly as a modern classic, it was also a match that has blown the Rugby World Cup wide open.
Anyone still doubtful as to whether this Irish team are genuine contenders to hoist the Webb Ellis Cup back in the same stadium next month has certainly received a forthright answer. Perhaps even more importantly it has convinced the players themselves that, given a fair wind, there is no reason why they cannot push on and secure the holy grail.
According to their influential lock forward Tadhg Beirne, the entire Ireland squad is starting to feel that something special is brewing. “When we go into the game I don’t think anyone in this squad feels like we’re going to lose,” said Beirne, reflecting on his side’s 16th successive Test victory, and 28th in their past 30 international outings. “There’s just this aura within the squad where we know we can do it. We just have to deliver what we’re good at.”
The feelgood factor following the massively physical and hugely resilient performance on Saturday night will also be sizeable. Andy Farrell’s side take a short breather before returning to the fray next week against Scotland.
“It’s a huge confidence booster,” said Beirne, recalling the moments when even the power‑laden Springboks were forcefully repelled and driven backwards. “It’s about putting our patches together into an 80-minute performance. If we do that, we know we can beat any team in the world.”
Not so long ago that type of opinion would have been seized upon as evidence of an Irish side potentially getting ahead of itself. This team are different and Beirne is simply stating the current reality. Even New Zealand, now Ireland’s likely opponents in the last eight, will find themselves second favourites as and when the quarter‑finals come around.
France will also have to regroup and reassess their next move with South Africa now on a collision course with the host nation in the last eight, unless Scotland confound all expectations. Had the Springboks taken their chances they could still have prevailed but Beirne, for one, suspects the tournament has not yet seen the back of them. “They’re a serious side, they have unbelievable individuals. They’re going to grow as the competition goes on. If we can keep going in the competition I’ve no doubt we’ll probably meet them again.”
That is not great news for a French side fretting about the fitness of Antoine Dupont but, with Zombie by the Cranberries still ringing in everyone’s ears, Saturday’s game between the world’s top two teams was of such high technical quality and intensity that even Les Bleus will need to improve to feature in the tournament’s last fortnight.
Ireland were particularly outstanding at close quarters, puncturing the hype around the supposedly unstoppable Springbok “Bomb Squad”. If the goal‑kicking frailties that led to South Africa missing out on a potential 11 points from the boot proved costly, question marks also hang over the wisdom of not naming a third specialist hooker in the original party.
At a critical late juncture the Boks’ hybrid stand-in Deon Fourie was pinged for a crooked throw and South Africa visibly missed the ball‑carrying and turnover threat of the injured Malcolm Marx. Perhaps even more than a goalkicker, they also require Duane Vermeulen to give them more forward punch. The time has come, too, for Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber to jettison their overblown 7-1 bench split and opt for something more balanced.
Ireland, though, can rest up this week with a sense of genuine satisfaction at a job well done. If there were echoes of any past contest, it was probably the unforgettable second Test of the 2009 British & Irish Lions series against South Africa in Pretoria when a stream of touring players had to be treated in hospital afterwards.
This game was similarly physical but quicker, the defences even better organised and insanely committed, the accuracy of the tackling proving that yellow and red cards need not be an inevitability. As against the All Blacks during last year’s series win in New Zealand, Ireland often looked the real deal and, but for their early lineout wobbles, might have scored more tries than their solitary effort from Mack Hansen after 33 minutes.
They also have a not-so-secret weapon in the stands. “I’ve never seen a crowd like that,” the captain, Johnny Sexton, said afterwards. “Someone said there were 30,000 [Irish fans], but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were 60,000. They’ve probably saved up for four years to come here. We play for them and they gave us the edge.” Keep playing at this same level and the promised land could yet await.