Killian Woods, Croke Park
Ireland 15-10 South Africa
Ireland took on Tri-nations champions South Africa in their final test of the Autumn international series at Croke Park on Saturday afternoon. The visitors came to Croke Park looking for a turn in fortunes after some bad performances in the series so far.
South Africa kicked off the event, controlling early parts of the game and through a Morne Steyn drop kick looked to open the scoring with their first attack. However, his attempt sailed wide.
It wasn’t until the 10th minute that Ireland finally began to gain some consistent possession and against the run of play they took the lead through a penalty. Irish flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, making his full international debut, stood up and cooly slotted the ball over.
Though Ireland took the lead, South Africa were playing more adventurously in the first half and were still bossing proceedings. Eventually their pressure on the Irish defence told in the 16th minute.
After several phases deep inside the Irish half, an error in the Irish defence saw four unmarked South African players on the Irish right wing. Ireland’s defence couldn’t cover in time and South Africa’s flanker Schalk Burger came off Jaque Fourie’s left shoulder to cut inside Rob Kearney and crash over the line. Morne Steyn followed up with the conversion.
From the kick off, Ireland had their first venture into the South Africa twenty-two. Heaslip peeled off a ruck and his break was followed by a similar run by O’Driscoll as Croke Park erupted into life.
Ireland attempted to keep the ball with some patient play but were overpowered by South Africa as the away side sniffed out any prospectively dangerous Irish chances. Though, Ireland continued beating away at South Africa in midfield, looking to carve their way up the field.
South Africa were a very clinical force in the first half and tried to keep the scoreboard ticking over at any opportunity as Morne Steyn kicked a drop goal to give South Africa a seven point advantage.
Though Ireland were not allowing themselves to be left behind and Sexton narrowed the gap with a penalty from the left hand side.
As the first half wore on, South Africa lost their grip on the game and just before half time Ireland were matching the intensity that South Africa brought to Croke Park.
Ireland started the second half brightly and only for a knock on by Keith Earls did the Irish attack breakdown. The first ten minutes of the second half saw scrappy play in midfield from both sides however, Ireland managed to keep the ball and win another penalty to narrow the gap further.
Yet again, Sexton cooly slotted over to kick his third successful penalty and bring the score to 9-10. The debutant’s opposite number, Morne Steyn, was not having the best of days as one of his kicks went straight out into touch.
From a play off the lineout , Ireland won another penalty which Sexton slotted over from past 10 metre line in South Africa half to give Ireland the lead for the first time since conceding the try. This South Africa team that appeared out of the dressing room seemed to be a different side from the first half. They were posing little threat to Ireland’s defence and rarely advancing into the Irish half.
Handling errors on the Irish side were holding the team back from scoring the try that would bring them further out of the clutches of the visitors.
Scrappy play in midfield from both sides but Ireland still have the ball. In this play Ireland gain a penalty at the breakdown which Sexton opted to kick. Just inside South Africa half, Sexton cooly slots over.
Many cracks have appeared in this Tri-Nations winning side over the course of this Guinness series. Ireland exploited them and forced South Africa to make errors at the breakdown and when they had the ball in hand.
Ireland had more chances to score a try in the second half and nearly opened up the Springboks defence midway through the second half as Tomás O’Leary tried to send the unmarked Keith Earls down the blindside of a ruck. Though, South African defensive cover was quick to bundle the winger into touch.
The wear and tear of this years rugby calendar affected South Africa today. As the game progressed their forwards John Smit, Burger and Andries Bekker all began giving away needless penalties within kickable distance of their posts. Unfortunately Sexton could not pounce on the opportunity given by Heinrich Russouw after the aforementioned player held onto the ball after being tackled.
That was Sexton’s first miss of the afternoon though he redeemed himself minutes later with an attempt after South Africa were penalaised at the breakdown yet again. From just inside the South African half Sexton gave Ireland the lead, 15-10 after 66 minutes.
Though Ireland were performing well as a unit, a standout performance from full-back Rob Kearney nullified South Africa’s kicking game. He gave yet another masterclass in catching the high ball as he continually out-jumped and out-muscled his challengers.
South Africa raised their game soon after the Ireland extended their lead. Straight from the kick off, Ireland gave away a penalty which Steyn took from the 10 metre line. His effort hits the posts and was the stroke of luck that Ireland needed to keep the Springboks at bay.
The game played out in the Irish half as South Africa were camped on the Irish try line with two minutes to play. Though, Ireland forced them back to the midway of their twenty-two and after playing out several phases in front of the posts, South Africa won a scrum. This was their last attempt to win the match and off the scrum Ruan Piennar fed South Africa full-back Zane Kirchner who was hit by a crunching tackle from O’Driscoll and Ireland gained a penalty which ended the match 15-10.
South Africa ended the tour as the performed throughout. Their weak displays against France and Ireland amongst others showed that this team is not the unstoppable force that made mincemeat of their Tri-Nations opponents and the British and Irish Lions at times.
After the game, Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll chose to reflect on Ireland’s successful unbeaten calender year: “We were in a dark place this time last year and we did a lot of soul searching and there was huge honesty” said the Irish centre.
“It largely comes down to work ethic.” O’Driscoll continued “It’s hugely important that guys are prepared to put in the hours. It’s a huge credit to everyone involved that we’ve gone a calendar year undefeated.”
Declan Kidney echoed O’Driscoll’s thoughts: “We finished the series with a win which is good for confidence and we’re looking forward to coming back for the Six Nations” said Irish coach Kidney. “We like to play these Tri-Nations teams as often as we can. We learnt more about ourselves today.”
South African coach Peter de Villiers was mainly required to field questions regarding the much talked off tiring rugby season which has been labelled as the reason for their bad Autumn form: “We want to honour rugby and do the best we can” said de Villiers. “If we’d picked the second team people would have thought we’re looking down on them but maybe we should have rested a few senior players.
“We must regroup and build on what we’ve achieved this year.” This win places Ireland in a great position in the build up to the Six Nations tournament and a suitable end to the year that it has been for Irish rugby.