'Superhuman' Ireland effort against sets benchmark
Ireland 29 South Africa 15
TIME to believe in this Ireland team. No more worried talk about injuries or feting of big-name opponents, under Joe Schmidt the Six Nations champions have the capacity to beat anyone.
Paul O'Connell and his men ended Saturday's Test under the posts, just like they did at the end of last year's defeat to New Zealand. This time, the try was immaterial even if it prevented the hosts from reaching the dizzy heights of third on the IRB rankings table.
Almost 12 months on from that harrowing endgame, the hosts had done more than enough to see it home. The circumstances were similar and, as Johnny Sexton lined up his 70th-minute penalty to make it 19-10 after receiving treatment, it was hard not to think back to the similar moment against New Zealand.
This time, the out-half nailed it. Four minutes later, he played his part in a sublime Tommy Bowe try and when the Springboks came late it was only in search of consolation through JP Pietersen.
That they beat the South Africa and have so much to work on is the real cause for optimism. There was a lot good about Ireland's performance on Saturday, but it was far from perfect.
"It's probably a benchmark result for us," Schmidt said as he refused to get carried away.
"We are performance-driven and I think our performance tonight at times was superhuman; the amount of times guys had to get up and make repeated tackles against such big strong carriers.
"At the same time I think next week could be entirely different. It's hard to say one Test will influence another. If you look back four weeks ago, South Africa were superb against the All Blacks.
"Past performance guarantees nothing in the future, all Test players understand that. The only thing that guarantees performance is the best preparation you can put yourself through and then hopefully that performance will be good enough."
If the squad and management weren't getting too far ahead of themselves, the fans who packed Lansdowne Road out for an intense and absorbing Test could start to dream big.
The World Cup is 10 months away and Ireland have downed one of the legitimate favourites to win it.
It helped that the Springboks turned up as if expecting to win comfortably and that their scrum-half Francois Hougaard played as if he'd won a competition to wear the dark green No 9 shirt for a day.
Despite talking up this tour as the beginning of their World Cup, they refused to play smart rugby and build a score as their captain Jean de Villiers and his accomplice Victor Matfield turned down shots at goal three times.
De Villiers later argued that they had gotten over the line at attempt No 3, but they never managed to get themselves in front, the position from which they strangled Ireland two years ago.
Instead, they made bad decisions and poor mistakes against a disciplined Ireland side whose commitment to the cause was frenzied.
Ireland were only too happy to take advantage, Sexton gave them a 6-3 lead at half-time and, after absorbing plenty of pressure, Rhys Ruddock crashed over in the opening minutes of the second half to extend that lead.
They lost Chris Henry to a virus on the morning of the game, but Ruddock stepped in and stepped up. Robbie Henshaw was physically dominant alongside Jared Payne in the centre, while Peter O'Mahony and Jack McGrath were menaces on the deck.
New faces came in, but they are held to the same standards.
"I think one of the most satisfying things is that players who come in fresh, I don't really need to talk to them about the expectation and nor do the other players," Schmidt said.
"They follow the lead of the other players who are driven, so the environment self-operates to a degree and that certainly makes the actual coaching, not driving people, but you can actually try to coach people because they're driving themselves and that's a massive thing for us."
While the close-quarter exchanges were brutal, Ireland's ace was their half-back pairing who controlled the game far better than their opposite numbers.
Sexton was outstanding in every facet of the game including defence, kicking brilliantly and breaking selectively when it was on. Alongside him, Conor Murray combined brawn with brains in another impressive outing.
The coach's touch was everywhere, from the clever tactic of not engaging the maul and sending McGrath around the side, to the brilliantly executed set-play for Bowe's try and the other starter plays that opened the Boks up when the game was closing in.
Having soaked up plenty of pressure in the first half through a huge defensive work rate, the noose began to tighten on Ireland in the third quarter as Heyneke Meyer sent on his big hitters from the bench and Marcell Coetzee mimicked Ruddock's try as the pack's attempt at sacking the South African maul failed.
Ireland looked in trouble, but somehow managed to wrest momentum back their way thanks, in part, to a brilliant steal from Richardt Strauss just as the tanks began to roll.
Instead, Sexton stretched Ireland's lead out to six as Strauss's cousin, Adriaan, was sent to the sin-bin for tackling Rob Kearney in the air. In isolation, it was harsh; but referee Romain Poite said the punishment was for cumulative offences and, after living on the edge for much of the evening, the Boks had no complaints.
Ireland went for the jugular. Sexton kicked a penalty, before carrying hard in-field minutes later. Bryan Habana drifted off his wing only for Murray to prod the ball into the hole he'd left where Bowe touched down.
The world's No 2 team were stunned having been out-thought by a team who had struggled in the set-piece, had less possession and territory and still come out on top to delight of the noisy home crowd.
"I've no doubt that teams will work us out a bit and put pressure on us. You've got to keep evolving," Schmidt said. "That's a challenge for the coaching group, to help the players - who drive the environment - to do that.
"It was a bit of static, it didn't have the free-flow of the All Blacks game, conditions were different. I was delighted with the way they went out.
"They earned the support. It was great to see the cheering, particularly when lads were coming off towards the end. They merited it. They're going to have to work harder still to merit it again, because the job's not going to get any easier."
They'll rest bodies against Georgia and go again against Australia having raised their own expectations.
The sweep is on.
IRELAND - R Kearney (F Jones 75); T Bowe, J Payne (E Reddan 79), R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (I Madigan 75), C Murray; J McGrath (D Kilcoyne 75), S Cronin (R Strauss 58), M Ross (R Ah You 74), D Toner (M McCarthy 74), P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony, R Ruddock, J Heaslip.
SOUTH AFRICA - W le Roux; C Hendricks (JP Pietersen 50), J Serfontein, J de Villiers (capt), B Habana; H Pollard (P Lambie 67), F Hougaard (C Reinach 57); T Mtawarira (T Nyakane 70), B du Plessis (A Strauss 51), J du Plessis (C Ooshuizen 71), E Etzebeth (B Botha 65), V Matfield, M Coetzee (B du Plessis 72-77), T Mohoje (S Burger 48), D Vermeulen.
Ref - R Poite (France)
Rob Kearney: 8
Came into the game with worries over his fitness but ruled the roost at full-back with no ill-effects of his hamstring problem. Took the right options all evening and covered the back-field brilliantly.
Tommy Bowe: 8
Closing in on Denis Hickie's second spot on the try-scoring charts after his latest effort. His earlier catch and kick showed what Ireland missed during his absence.
Jared Payne: 7 7
Ireland didn't ask much of their centres in attack but what Payne did, he did well. Whistled once for holding on, but covered for a first-half Henshaw misread and defended well throughout.
Robbie Henshaw: 8
Physically born for this level and he showed on Saturday that he has the brains to match with that superb kick that led to Ruddock's try. A little to learn in defence if the No 12 shirt is to be his.
Simon Zebo: 6
Chasing kick-offs brilliantly is becoming a Zebo trademark, but this wasn't a night for any of his free running. Needs to work on his back-field work, while he was partly at fault for the try.
Jonathan Sexton: 9
A magnificent display from the fly-half who rewarded his forwards' efforts with some sublime kicking. 100pc from the tee and clever with ball in hand, the brains of the operation.
Conor Murray: 9
Growing in stature with every outing, Murray's partnership with Sexton must be a comfort for Joe Schmidt. Decision-making key, service solid and the kick for Bowe's try was perfect.
Jack McGrath: 7
A tad harsh maybe, but three penalties went against the St Mary's man who lost his scrum battle to Jannie du Plessis. Despite that, he was excellent around the park.
Sean Cronin: 7
His captain took the blame for the stray lineouts and Cronin got through a mountain of work in the loose, taking the game to South Africa from the whistle. Industrious.
Mike Ross: 7
Despite a month on the sidelines, Ross held up his end of the bargain and then some. Got through 74 minutes of hard work and, one silly penalty aside, never let the side down.
Devin Toner: 7
Criticised himself for his defensive work last month but the big man put in a huge shift in the tight. Work at the restart is really impressive, but he's not a cross-kick option.
Paul O'Connell: 7
Led from the front and was far more dynamic than his opposite number Victor Matfield. Took the lineout problems on his own shoulders, but made up for it with his huge effort.
Peter O'Mahony: 8
Must be an absolute nightmare to play against. The Corkman won't take no for an answer, somehow winning the ball on the deck that led to the key penalty to make it 19-10.
Rhys Ruddock: 8
Only found out he was playing a few hours before kick-off but performed impressively, taking and giving huge hits for his team. A frightening specimen, his physique is a real asset.
Jamie Heaslip: 8
Won't want to see a replay of Pietersen's try, but otherwise the vice-captain was immense again. Carrying cleverly and tackling hard, he has rarely been in better form.
Richardt Strauss (7) made a telling impact with an all-action display against his home country. Tommy O'Donnell (7) was next on and got stuck in, picking up where O'Mahony left off. Otherwise, Schmidt held fire on his replacements until the game was won, with most coming on after Bowe's try with six minutes to go.
Joe Schmidt: 9
If England are throwing out six-year deals for their underperforming selectors, what's holding up the IRFU in trying to nail Schmidt down beyond 2016?
His fingerprints were all over this committed, clever display against bigger, in-form opponents who looked confused at what was happening. The players, who deserve huge credit, are buying into his regime and getting the rewards as the winning run goes to five.
With the New Zealander's mind in their corner, Ireland can achieve anything.
Game at a Glance
Man of the Match: Johnny Sexton (Ireland)
An outstanding display from the fly-half who showed Handre Pollard he still has a way to go in the white heat of Test rugby.
The yellow card was important, but momentum shifted when Richardt Strauss ripped the ball from Jannie du Plessis' grasp on the hour-mark. South Africa were looking menacing, but Ireland got relief and a second wind.
Confidence levels are high and the possibilities that are opening up under the guiding hand of Joe Schmidt are genuinely exciting. The World Cup is looking promising.
A gritty match was blown open by Conor Murray's pre-planned but brilliantly executed chip to Tommy Bowe, who gathered and scored. Special mention for Willie Le Roux, who lit up the Aviva at times.
The Springboks were dignified in defeat and wouldn't go down the tired route of criticising Romain Poite, but they had reason to feel Strauss' yellow card was harsh. Otherwise, a strong display.
What they said
Joe Schmidt (Ireland coach):
"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."
Jannie du Plessis (South Africa prop):
"I don't know if we're angry or bitter. It's a s*** feeling and if you play in a Springbok jersey you don't want to have that feeling."
Jared Payne is the big worry after he injured his foot. Initial X-rays were clear, but he'll have scans this morning and is unlikely to face Georgia. Chris Henry suffered a viral infection on the morning of the game, but could yet train this week.
Ireland will ring the changes for the visit of Georgia and give players a rest ahead of the Wallabies' arrival. South Africa will be a wounded beast as they take to Twickenham to face England.