Ireland defence coach Simon Easterby was pleased with how the team came through a sticky patch with their lineout and prevented South Africa from scoring off a maul right at the death.
As with the breakdown throughout the Paris clash, the lineout was a fiercely-contested area of the game. The Springboks came off the better, registering three steals as Ireland lost a total of six of their own throws.
Some of those were in scoring positions for Andy Farrell’s men, who steadied the ship with a much better set-piece performance during the second half of their hard-fought 13-8 win over the reigning world champions.
There were massive moments throughout this intense Pool B battle, from Bundee Aki’s lung-busting break, to Mack Hansen’s try out wide in the 32nd minute, to Jame Lowe’s choke tackle turnover on Eben Etzebeth, and the two scrum penalties that delivered six points from the tee.
But the sight of Ireland forcing that last-minute ‘Boks drive to ground, near their own line, was arguably the biggest of the lot. Tadhg Beirne and replacements Ryan Baird and Iain Henderson led an immense collective effort to keep them out.
Speaking in the aftermath, Easterby said: “You’re playing against one of the best defensive lineouts in the world, so there is always pressure. It is an opportunity for them to recover the ball.
“There are things you can do in your own game to try to prevent that happening, but also you can’t really dictate what the opposition do.
“South Africa have a very strong defensive lineout. There are things we can fix and get better at, and we fixed a few of those issues as the game went on, in the second half in particular.
“Certainly that defensive lineout right at the end was a massive point in the game, when there was five points in it. They kicked to the corner and had a couple of chances to have a crack at it, but the lads defended incredibly well.
“You’re always going to have those moments of ebb and flow, and you need to make sure you ride with those moments and try to come out the other side better for it.”
Eight is the lowest amount of points South Africa have scored in a Test match since losing 38-3 to Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in November 2017. Farrell’s side won a tournament-high seven turnovers at the breakdown.
They set out their stall by turning down an early shot at the posts and kicking to the corner. However, it was a strategy that did not pay off as Franco Mostert and Pieter-Steph du Toit immediately put pressure on Ronan Kelleher’s throws, with du Toit swatting back a clean steal.
Between Kelleher and replacement Dan Sheehan, they made sure the lineout was tidier as the game went on. Peter O’Mahony secured set-piece possession on five occasions, James Ryan recorded three lineout wins, and there were two each from Beirne and influential replacement Henderson.
Second row Beirne was right in the thick of the action throughout, his engine and durability a huge asset as the Springboks unloaded their forward-laden bench.
The Kildare man is the only forward to have played every minute of Ireland’s Rugby World Cup 2023 campaign so far. Asked about the lineout problems, he admitted:
We had a plan but South Africa have the best defensive lineout in the world. They put two pods in there. We went with a plan and unfortunately the first couple didn’t go (our way), but we stuck with it.
“We started winning some lineouts. You win some, you lose some. We will look at our drill maybe, that didn’t go as well as we hoped.
“But we stuck with the lineouts we worked on all week. James (Ryan) and Hendy (Iain Henderson) went with the options they felt were on, much like the start of the game. But our plan didn’t work at the start of the game.”
South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber felt that Ireland were ‘exceptional’ at the breakdown on the night, saying it was ‘probably one of the biggest reasons why we didn’t get momentum’.
Although the ‘Boks did earn some penalties in that key battleground, their captain Siya Kolisi conceded that the Grand Slam champions were ‘more accurate’ and ‘a bit faster to the breakdown’.
Giving his own take, Beirne commented: “It was physical. I got beat around the place a couple of times, but I only got one turnover.
“So they did very well in fairness to them. It was a physical game. They threw a lot of punches at us in the second half, but we are pretty happy with how we got on.”
This was a huge result in terms of putting Farrell’s charges on the cusp of quarter-final qualification. They will look to finish the job off next Saturday week when they play Scotland in their second successive outing at the Stade de France.
Easterby knows how dangerous a side Scotland can be, and Ireland cannot afford to slip up coming off the back of a welcome down week. “It’s an important break for us now. There are a lot of sore bodies in the changing room,” he acknowledged.
“We can be really pleased with what we did tonight, but we need to get better. Scotland will be thinking there are opportunities to do damage against us.
“We need to make sure we recover well and get back to Tours (Ireland’s team base for the pool stages) and have a really good preparation like we did for this week.”