A try in each half, from back-rower Jordan Coghlan and then lock Iain Henderson, was reward for a mighty forward display while fly-half JJ Hanrahan orchestrated a superb team effort against the heavily favoured Baby Boks.
Coach Mike Ruddock had been denied the services of team captain Paddy Jackson when the Ulster fly-half was kept at home under orders from the IRFU. But Munster’s Hanrahan made light of the loss with a perfect kicking return of two penalties, two conversions and a drop goal.
South Africa had beaten Ireland in the fifth-sixth place play-off in last year’s tournament in Italy and they started this game by putting the Irish under the cosh for the first 10 minutes.
Resolute defending in that opening period was a sign of Irish commitment, however, and South Africa only had a penalty at the end of it from fly-half Tony Jantjies to show for their dominance.
The Irish set-piece was working as well as their defence while it was tenacious work at the breakdown that paved the way for Hanrahan’s opening kick as opposing captain Paul Jordaan was penalised for not releasing under pressure on his own 22 from lock Henderson and a supporting pod of defenders.
Hanrahan slotted the penalty from the left touchline and it got even better for Ireland when the Garryowen out-half broke out of his own 22, spreading panic in the Baby Bok defence on halfway. He passed to scrum-half Kieran Marmion who went into contact, Marc Pretorious was penalised from coming in from the side and though Hanrahan appeared to scuff his kick, it crept over the crossbar to put Ireland into a 6-3 lead with 24 minutes played.
The momentum was all with Ireland and four minutes later openside flanker Conor Gilsenan charged down Jantjies’ kick on halfway, his Leinster back-row partner Jordan Coghlan collected and his strong run took him under the posts, Hanrahan converting to give Ireland a 13-3 lead they took into half-time.
Inevitably, the Boks started the second-half strongly and a try came in the 53rd minute from Lions lock Paul Willemse, who willed himself over the line from a couple of metres, Jantjies converting.
Hanrahan calmed Irish nerves shortly after with a well-taken drop goal but back came Jantjies with a penalty and the Springbok out-half levelled the scores at 16-all.
Then came the decisive moment of the game. Munster hooker James Rael replaced skipper Niall Scannell at the restart and made an instant impact as the Baby Boks laboured over the ruck from Hanrahan’s kick-off. Rael’s first job was to charge down sub scrum-half Vian van der Watt’s box kick and collect the rebound. He carried to the line, with Henderson in support to pick and pile over the line for a vital try. Hanrahan converted to put Ireland 23-16 up with 12 minutes to go.
Jantjies made it five kicks from five with a 70th-minute penalty and three minutes later launched an inch-perfect penalty into touch right in the corner. This was South Africa’s chance to rescue the game and they blew it, their bigger lineout malfunctioning as Gilsenan stole and Henderson scooped up the loose ball one-handed to win vital possession in a famous rearguard action.
Ireland now have to avenge their Six Nations defeat on Friday by beating England, easy winners over Italy yesterday, when the two undefeated sides in the group meet on Friday.
SOUTH AFRICA: D Leyds; P Jordaan, P Howard, J Serfontein, R Rhule (T Mbovane, 59); T Jantjies, A Griesel (V van der Watt, 50); S Kitshoff (O Kebble, h-t), M Pretorius (J Thomas, 78), A Dell (M van Dyk, h-t); P Willemse (R Botha, 68), P S du Toit; S Adendorff, W Liebenberg – captain, F Booysen.
IRELAND: P Nelson; B Daly, F Horan, C Farrell, S Coghlan Murray (M Sherlock, 68); JJ Hanrahan, K Marmion (L McGrath, 58); D Merry (P Reilly, 73), N Scannell – captain (J Rael, 64), T Furlong; T Beirne (A O’Connor, 71), I Henderson; J Coghlan (A Conneely, 59), C Gilsenan, J Conan.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales).