In over a century of rugby, Ireland and South Africa had never played each other on neutral ground. After this match in Paris, it feels like we’re still waiting to see what will happen when they finally do. Judging by the turnout here, it must have been an awful quiet night in Dublin. The country must have been running a skeleton crew, with just the guard who pulled the short straw left to mind the border. It seemed everyone else was here, stuffed into every cafe, bar, bistro and brasserie, squeezed into every train and metro carriage, spread out across every street corner.
Everywhere you looked there were beaming men and women in green, eagerly asking the French, and everyone else, were they going to the match tonight, and who did they fancy for it? You guess the question wouldn’t even have occurred to the travelling Springbok fans. Neither side can much have fancied the other, but the South Africans, outnumbered three-to-one, weren’t about to admit it. For the Irish, hard past experience had taught them that however well their team has been playing before the tournament, it’s best not to assume anything of them once it starts.
Having weathered the rocky patches of Andy Farrell’s early matches, their confidence has grown as he steered the team through a run of victories against England, France, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and everyone else worth beating, the triple crown, the grand slam, a series victory in New Zealand, 27 wins in 29, including the last 15 in a row. Even so, they were the world’s No 1 team in 2019, too, and still went out in the quarter-finals, like always. This, then, was the first real Test of whether hope might bloom into expectation.
It was world No 1s against world No 2s, the tournament’s sternest defence against its sharpest attack. The South Africans had conceded exactly three points in 160 minutes of rugby, just the one miserable penalty goal against Scotland. Ireland, meanwhile, had peeled off 20 tries in two games, more than they scored in the entire pool stages in 2019.
The match lived up to it. It was always going to be low-scoring, games between these two teams usually are, and it was always going to be tight as a miser’s purse strings, there’s only been a score between them in seven of their last 10. But it was still rich viewing for the neutral. It reached a pitch of intensity that was a level up from anything else seen in this tournament, a level that, in truth, would have suited the final, and would have been beyond every other team here, with the possible exception of France. These two, though, were in their element.
It matched Ireland’s intricate attacking patterns, their knit one, purl one needlework play, all short passes and wraps and loops, against South Africa’s lunatic blitz defence, which had shut down Scotland back in the opening round. Against the Boks, the man on the ball doesn’t have time to take half a breath before the tackler is on him. Blink before you think and next thing you know you’ve been knocked into next week. If you’re lucky the doctor will pass you fit to play again in the spring.
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Ireland were hobbled in the first half by their spluttering set piece. They blew three attacking lineouts in the opening 10 minutes, which didn’t help because it meant they couldn’t get away any of their starter plays. But the defining passage in that half was back on their own try-line, when they put together a couple of defensive sets that repelled two South Africa attacks led by their hard-charging centre Damian de Allende. He ran straight through Robbie Henshaw, who had to go off for a head injury assessment, and then Johnny Sexton, who needed medical treatment on his shoulder. There ought to be a government health warning on his shirt. Both times, the South Africans flooded through after him, right to the line.
And both times, Ireland won the ball back off them again, once when James Lowe ripped it away, then again when he caught a ricochet as Siya Kolisi fumbled a pass from Jesse Kriel. They had faced the full brunt of the South Africa attack, and turned it back. They came bounding downfield, a 50m break by Bundee Aki, that sparked a move which ended with them scoring off a lineout, and a neat little bit of midfield wizardry from Sexton, which created space for Lowe to throw a cut-out pass to Mack Hansen on the right wing.
Of course the Springboks came back at them, even stole the lead for a time, after Cheslin Kolbe’s try. Ireland, though, had one crucial advantage over them: a goal-kicker. South Africa’s own, Handré Pollard, was stuck in the stands, just back from injury. The two men doing it for them, Faf de Klerk and Manie Libbok, were poor deputies. They missed four kicks, worth 11 points, between them. In a match as tight as this one, that was an even bigger handicap than Ireland’s wobbly lineout, and it ended up the difference between the teams.
Pollard will be likely back for the rematch, if there is one later in the tournament. But by then Ireland, and their fans, will have something else going for them too: the belief they really can win this thing, at last.