Ireland edged the clash of the thoroughbreds on Saturday night at the Stade de France. The world’s top ranked team gritted their way past their nearest rivals South Africa 13-8 to take control of Group B at the 2023 rugby union World Cup.
Something had to give at the Stade de France. The Irish and South Africa had started the tournament confidently. Ireland thrashed Romania 82-8 in Bordeaux in their opening match and followed it up with a 59-16 victory over Tonga.
South Africa crushed Scotland 18-3 in their first game and then pulverised Romania 76-0.
And the titans started furiously in front of nearly 79,000 fans. Manie Libbok opened the scoring after six minutes from a penalty.
And that was it for another half an hour of gripping, relentless raking for territory until Aki Bundee broke clear. His burst took the Irish to the South African five-metre line on the left.
The ball was worked to the other wing where Mack Hansen went over. Jonathan Sexton added the two points for the conversion and increased his points record for his country to 1,092.
More importantly, Ireland went in at half-time 7-3 up.
South Africa’s response was predictably powerful. After squandering several good opportunities earlier in the contest, they finally cut through. Cheslin Kolbe touched down on the right wing to give his side an 8-7 lead. But Libbok missed the conversion.
Sexton showed him the folly of imprecision kicking a penalty to restore Ireland’s lead. Libbok missed another penalty and Faf de Klerk was equally wayward.
Sexton’s replacement Jack Crowley succeeded with his penalty attempt six minutes from time to push Ireland to 13-8 and ramp up the tension for the grandstand finish.
It nearly happened.
Kolbe got the ball and danced his way down field. But from the line-out the Irish defence held firm.
“We had a great opportunity there,” lamented the South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber.
“And we lost the ball virtually underneath the posts in the first-half so it wasn’t just the kicking. But hat’s off to Ireland, they were better than us on the night and no complaints in terms of their performance.”
Andy Farrell, Nienaber’s Ireland counterpart, savoured the wafer of the thinness between defeat and a 16th succesive victory.
“It’s wonderful to win but there’s not much in it between two good sides,” he conceded.
“And I think the best thing about it for us is that we we get to feel the intensity of a big game within this World Cup and know what that feels like for further down the line.”
Ireland have never progressed past the last eight in the nine previous visits to the World Cup.
A win against Scotland on 7 October at the Stade de France will give them top spot in Group B and a last eight clash against the runner-up from Group A – likely to be New Zealand.
“You can’t look beyond the next game in this competition,” warned Sexton.
“Now it’s all about Scotland who are an excellent team. I think that they’ll be frustrated with how they played against South Africa.
“So it’s all geared up towards that game and making sure that we do what’s required to try and win the pool.”
Nienaber’s men will play their final pool game against Tonga on 1 October in Marseille.
“Ireland will have a little bit less pressure on them going into the last round,” said Nienaber.
“And obviously, that pressure is now on us. We’ve got a big game against Tonga to get out of the pool.
“We will do a proper review on the game against Ireland and look at the areas that we feel didn’t go our way and what plans worked and what plans didn’t work.
“And then we will take it from there.”
In Group C on Saturday, Nuno Sousa Guedes missed a last-minute penalty to deprive Portugal of a first World Cup victory.
Minutes before he fluffed his lines in Toulouse, Tengiz Zamtaradze scored a try to level the scores at 18-18 but Luka Matkava botched the conversion.
In Group D, Henry Arundell scored five tries as England annihilated World Cup debutants Chile 71-0 in Lille to top Group D.
Owen Farrell returned as fly-half and skipper after missing the first two wins against Argentina and Japan through suspension.
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