South Africa underline status as top-ranked nation with gripping Ireland win

Ireland wing James Lowe went from hero to zero as world champions South Africa underlined their status as Test rugby’s top-ranked nation with a gripping 27-20 win in Pretoria.

Lowe produced a sensational offload to set up a debut try for Jamie Osborne and thought he had brought Andy Farrell’s men level with a superb breakaway score in the second half.

But the New Zealand-born player’s eye-catching effort was ruled out on review for an adjudged infringement by Ronan Kelleher before he gifted Cheslin Kolbe a try to put the Springboks back in control following Kurt-Lee Arendse’s third-minute opener.

Conor Murray and Ryan Baird crossed for Ireland late on, either side of a penalty try for South Africa, in a remarkable finish at Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

But Rassie Erasmus’ side, aided by 10 points from the boot of fly-half from Handre Pollard, held on to seize the initiative ahead of next weekend’s second – and final – Test in Durban.

In worrying scenes, Ireland also saw scrum-half Craig Casey carried off on a stretcher after he hit his head on the pitch during a forceful tackle from RG Snyman.

Farrell’s tourists were seeking a fourth-successive Irish victory over South Africa following a captivating pool-stage win at last year’s World Cup in France.

The Springboks recovered from that 13-8 Paris defeat to retain the Webb Ellis Cup, while forthright comments emanating from their camp since have further stoked a growing rivalry between Test rugby’s two leading sides.

James Lowe, number 11, endured a mixed evening
James Lowe (number 11) endured a mixed evening (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Home supporters humorously fanned the flames by adapting the words of Ireland’s unofficial World Cup anthem ‘Zombie’, chanting “in your head, in your head, Rassie, Rassie” in reference to the frequent mind games of head coach Erasmus.

South Africa responded to the big build-up and made a rapid start as jet-heeled wing Arendse collected Siya Kolisi’s pass to sidestep Osborne and cross on the left.

Ireland travelled to the southern hemisphere having bounced back from a familiar World Cup quarter-final exit by retaining the Six Nations title.

Jack Crowley’s 13-minute penalty put the visitors on the scoreboard before Pollard twice split the posts at the other end to move the Springboks 10 points ahead.

Farrell’s men were struggling to build momentum amid a low-energy first-half display.

Crowley missed a routine penalty to reduce the deficit before Lowe’s magnificent offload as he was ploughed into touch by a combination of Kolbe and Jesse Kriel, after a slick pass from Dan Sheehan, gave international newcomer Osborne a simple score.

Ireland were perhaps fortunate to only trail 13-8 at the break.

Erasmus brought on all six of his replacement forwards 10 minutes into the second period in an attempt to remain on top of the physical battle, just before visiting prop Andrew Porter departed with a bloodied hand.

Following his fine first-half assist, Lowe looked to have restored parity by darting clear to touch down.

But referee Luke Pearce disallowed the 58th-minute effort as replacement hooker Kelleher was deemed to have played the ball on the floor during the turnover.

Ireland’s Craig Casey, centre, was forced off by a head knock
Ireland’s Craig Casey (centre) was forced off by a head knock (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Ireland’s misfortune was compounded by the worrying departure of Casey, before Lowe, in his attempts to keep the ball from going into touch, left Kolbe with an unchallenged run to the try line.

The contest then burst into life in a frenetic finish during which the Springboks were reduced to 14 men when Arendse was sin binned following repeated infringements inside the hosts’ 22.

Murray – on for the stricken Casey – dived over to put Ireland back in touching distance but a penalty try for the Springboks, prior to Baird’s consolation, ultimately decided a breathless encounter.