South Africa 20 Ireland 26: The air may be thinner up here on the Highveld but it tasted oh so sweet for Ireland as they touched down in Johannesburg yesterday after their Cape Town heroics.
The bodies are bruised but mercifully intact and Irish minds are very much alive to the possibility that having secured a first victory over the Springboks in South Africa on Saturday at Newlands, they can now kick on and earn further status by winning a Test series.
Only the greats have managed that in South Africa and the success stories can be counted on one hand but joining the likes of Willie John McBride and Sean Fitzpatrick as a series-winning captain would be all the more remarkable for Ireland skipper Rory Best given the circumstances of this famous win.
There will not be many days as good as this for Irish rugby as last Saturday, nor as dark for the Springboks. The South African As had suffered defeat by the England Saxons the previous night and their Baby Boks would go down to Argentina at the U20 World Championship in Manchester.
Joe Schmidt’s side took the field at Newlands less than an hour after Ireland’s U20s had recorded a first victory over their All Blacks counterparts and though they were depleted by injury and written off by many, the Ireland head coach would leave the famous old stadium with another considerable achievement added to his resumé and no little pride in the players that had delivered it.
This was a win without panic or thought of surrender, just a tenacious work ethic in the face of adversity.
They had started strongly, this young and inexperienced team, with Ulster’s 10-12 axis of Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall tasked with delivering a creative platform for their team despite Test experience amounting to just 19 caps before kick-off as Schmidt juggled his pack to replace the combined 130 caps-worth of Johnny Sexton and full-back Rob Kearney.
It was Kearney’s direct replacement Jared Payne, switched from outside centre with such brilliant dividends that profited from his provincial team-mates’ efforts, the full-back pouncing on Marshall’s delightfully stabbed kick through the Springbok defensive line for the opening try on 12 minutes before fly-half Paddy Jackson added a conversion and penalty.
Then came the moment it should have all come undone, the controversial 23rd minute dismissal of Ireland flanker CJ Stander and then a yellow card for Robbie Henshaw in the move that led to South Africa’s try by Lwazi Mvovo.
Ireland could well have just settled for damage limitation as they fell behind 13-10 following Elton Jantjies’ conversion but what Jackson lacks in experience he made up for in guts and execution. The 24-year-old’s drop goal levelled the scores before the first of many defensive rearguards was required to hold out the threatening Boks just before half-time.
They stood firm with a little help from some lousy decision-making from the home attack and not only that, actually kicked on from there, making light of the numerical disadvantage as Henshaw returned just in time to see Conor Murray finish a superb move down the right with Payne offloading to Andrew Trimble, Best collecting a loose ball and the scrum-half launching himself off the base of a ruck to use his strength and determination to score through a pile of bodies.
Jackson again converted the try and against all expectation, 14-man Ireland were seven points in front with 37 minutes remaining. Jackson would put the game out of South Africa’s reach with two nerveless penalties, another striking an upright, either side of sending a pass for Jack McGrath that was intercepted by Pieter-Steph du Toit and converted by Jantjies. It made for a nervous last 10 minutes and needed yet another massive defensive effort with time up as Payne and Henshaw combined to hold up JP Pietersen to deny a try which would have left replacement fly-half Jantjies with a conversion to win the match.
That would have been particularly cruel given not only the lack of Springbok cohesion and sloppy discipline but also Ireland’s considerable endeavour. Yet as an anxious bench looked on, captain Best among the warriors who had given their all to the cause, Henshaw and Payne were joined by that man Jackson and the considerable bulk of impactful replacement Rhys Ruddock to dispatch Pietersen and South African hopes into touch.
Schmidt could not but have his mood tempered by Stander’s dismissal as he was asked to ponder one of the greatest wins in Irish rugby history.
“There’s a tinge of disappointment but an enormous amount of pride,” he said. “I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a team scramble and work so hard to stay in the game. When down 13-10 I felt we were incredibly unlucky with Robbie’s tackle (on Jantjies, that led to the yellow card). I thought both arms were wrapped below the shoulders and if there was a bit of a head clash, again, I think it was pretty unlucky, particularly because Luke Marshall had his cover line blocked pretty visibly.
“When they went 13-10 up nobody panicked. We sent a simple message on, build and take the drop goal if it’s on and he just did it like a past master, it was a class effort. The try in the second half, we did get a bit of a fortuitous finger tip from (full-back Willie) Le Roux but at the same time I thought we finished it really well and the same in the first half.”
Schmidt was happy to see his selection policy vindicated following criticism from some quarters of the personnel he brought with him in the absence of so many frontliners.
“Yeah, we probably copped a little bit from different people about who’s here but the guys that are really put their hands up today. We know they’d be some really good ones that missed out on selection but we want to keep growing the group and that’s part of what we want to try to do while we’re here and I think they’ve got a bit of growth out of today.”
A bit of growth may prove to be an understatement for this victory should do wonders for the morale of this evolving Ireland team. Two more stern challenges await in South Africa and there is a November ahead that sees two meetings with the All Blacks and another with Australia. Yet victory in Newlands has set the benchmark. Ireland did not need to be at full strength to beat a Southern Hemisphere giant. They didn’t even need 14 men, for goodness sake.
The possibilities are mouth-watering.
W le Roux; JP Pietersen, L Mapoe (J Kriel, 68), D de Allende, L Mvovo; P Lambie (E Jantjies, 23), F de Klerk (R Paige, 68); T Mtawarira (T Nyakane, 59), A Strauss - captain, F Malherbe (J Redelinghuys, 77); E Etzebeth, L de Jager (P-S du Toit, 56); F Louw (W Whiteley, 56), S Kolisi, D Vermeulen.
De Jager, 12-22
Replacement not used:
J Payne; A Trimble, R Henshaw, L Marshall, K Earls (C Gilroy, 77); P Jackson, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best – captain (S Cronin, 70), M Ross (T Furlong, 59); I Henderson (U Dillane, 70), D Toner; CJ Stander, J Murphy (R Ruddock, 74), J Heaslip.
Henshaw, 32-42 Red card: Stander, 23
Replacements not used:
F Bealham, K Marmion, I Madigan Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
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