There may have been heroics across the field as Ireland recorded only their fifth victory in 22 meetings with South Africa but for many the 80-minute shift put in by captain Paul O’Connell was as special as the win itself.
The 34-year-old lock may have been unhappy with the way his lineout coped with some intense pressure from Victor Matfield and Eben Etzebeth as well as how the Irish scrum wobbled at times and the manner in which the maul defence creaked twice during the 29-15 win at Aviva Stadium.
Yet when it came to commitment, perseverance, character and determination, no-one could have faulted the Ireland team, from man of the match Johnny Sexton, through try-scoring Rhys Ruddock, who had begun matchday as the 24th man but was drafted in to replace an ill Chris Henry to loosehead prop along with Jack McGrath, who made 17 tackles as he deputised for injured first-choice Cian Healy.
It was a tackle count matched only by O’Connell, whose all-round contribution was appreciated not least by head coach Joe Schmidt.
The New Zealander even reached for a new superlative to describe his captain, a Maori word, the definition of which encompasses several English ones, not least prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power and charisma.
“A word that sums him up is that he’s just got ‘mana’,” Schmidt said.
“A guy who does not know how to give up, he prides himself on being as well prepared as he can be and he has massive respect within the group because of how he delivers. When he’s done, he delivers again.
“Not many guys have the mental capacity Paul O’Connell has. There are a lot of guys who physically get into good shape, but he’s one of the most mentally tough players I’ve been involved with.”
Schmidt said O’Connell’s 80-minute performances marked “a line in the sand” for Ireland.
“He just makes sure he delivers every time. I’m not sure myself how he does it, because I think I’d be crumpled and that would be at the start of the game.
“He just keeps going right through the game, that’s why he has so much respect and that’s why he’s a genuine captain who leads by example.”
For Schmidt the win represented his first over a southern hemisphere big gun since stepping up to Test level as Declan Kidney’s successor 18 months ago and despite the straight face he maintained amid the post-match euphoria, he admitted: “I’m delighted, I am. This is me delighted.
“I’d have to say that I’m delighted less about the performance than by the people that performed. The character they showed gives me a lot of confidence that they are utterly committed to the job they do.
“The one thing we talked about in the latest part of the week, ‘let’s not make this just about ourselves. If we want the cauldron that we got last November we have to deliver something for the people to get excited about’.
“Now, it was a little bit of a static game. It didn’t have the free flow of the All Blacks game but conditions were a little bit different and I was delighted with the way they went out and I think they earned the support they got and it was great to see the cheering, particularly when the lads were coming off, being subbed off towards the end when they needed three scores with about seven minutes to go.
“You know, it’s never a fait accompli but people standing up and applauding them, I think they merited it.”
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