Ireland-South Africa matches have a habit of producing tense finishes and narrow, hard-fought wins, and that was the case again on Saturday night as Andy Farrell’s men prevailed with just five points to spare.
With Ireland’s home victories in 2006 (32-15), 2014 (29-15) and 2017 (38-3) the outliers, nine of the teams’ last 12 meetings have been decided by six points or less.
Had South Africa’s goal-kicking been more accurate in Paris, or the Irish lineout not misfired on a few occasions deep inside the opposition 22, there remains some doubt as to what the winning margin might have been either way.
Taking their record winning run to 16 Tests, some of those Ireland performances have been easy on the eye but this one was all about defensive organisation, grit, battling through setbacks and scoring at crucial stages. ‘Finding a way’, as head coach Farrell would say.
Conor Murray is well used to taking on South African sides, even more so in recent seasons with the Rainbow Nation’s leading franchises featuring in the United Rugby Championship and the EPCR tournaments.
The vastly-experienced 110-times capped scrum half toured South Africa with Ireland in 2016 – scoring a memorable try in their first ever win over the Springboks on South African soil – and with the British & Irish Lions in 2021.
A BKT URC winner with Munster in Cape Town just four short months ago, Murray was sprung from the bench for the gripping end-game in Saint-Denis, as Ireland again displayed the winning mentality they have honed through 30 games since the 2021 Six Nations.
“I think that (winning tight matches) is a habit you have to learn,” said Murray, speaking in the mixed zone afterwards. “We have our game-plan and we would like it to go smoothly all the time, but it doesn’t. That’s international rugby.
“Andy and all the other coaches have taught us that it’s about finding a way. Days are not going to be perfect, days are going to be difficult, you are going to make mistakes, it is just about finding a way and I think we have managed to do that.”
He added: “(This win is) very satisfying, especially with the form that South Africa in at the moment as well. Knowing Rassie (Erasmus) and Jacques (Nienaber), and a few of the lads that I’ve been coached by, they were going to come really prepared for this game.
“There was a lot of hype around this game and to come through on the right side of the scoreboard is really, really pleasing.”
Just three pool fixtures in, Ireland’s Rugby World Cup 2023 campaign has certainly captured the imagination of supporters at home, abroad and those following the team at packed-out stadiums in Bordeaux, Nantes and in the French capital.
RTÉ has confirmed that Saturday’s clash with the Springboks, which was broadcast live on RTÉ 2, attracted an average audience of 1.2 million. There were also 267,000 streams on the RTÉ Player.
A total of 73% of those watching TV at the time were tuned in to RTÉ 2’s live coverage which peaked at 1.4 million at 9.47pm, just when Ireland managed to bring the ‘Boks maul to the ground to confirm their 13-8 triumph.
Murray and a number of his team-mates paid tribute to the Ireland supporters that roared on the team at the Stade de France, with the Limerick man saying it was ‘one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in, if not the best’.
“I think the way the game was, it was so tight for the entirety of the game. The Irish fans were in full voice the whole way through.
“It’s a long day for players, the nine o’clock kick-off. It is a tough day to put down. But when you arrive to an atmosphere like that, it makes it all worth it.
Given it was such a tight game, the atmosphere was electric for the whole 80 minutes, and you could feel the crowd really fully engaged for the entirety of the game.
“Complete relief and joy at the end the way we held them out on our try-line, and then the songs started playing as we walked around to say thank you to the fans again.
“They always show up. I think Irish fans, not being biased, they really do make a difference. Yeah, one of the good nights.”
There was a lot of talk about South Africa’s 7-1 bench split during the build-up, but Ireland’s replacements – with a total of 376 caps between them – brought plenty of impact of their own. Farrell said that ‘the energy they gave was fantastic because that’s how they train’.
Dan Sheehan’s World Cup debut, which came just a couple of minutes after Cheslin Kolbe had touched down, began the unloading of the Irish bench. Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw, Finlay Bealham, Ryan Baird, Murray, Jack Crowley and Dave Kilcoyne all made timely contributions.
Crowley and Bealham are both playing at their first senior World Cup, and the pair gave credit to South Africa for how they played and what a ‘world class’ team they are.
“I think it’s 10 months since we played them back in Dublin, and that Test was something that we reviewed massively because the challenge it brought us, playing a world class side like that,” admitted Crowley, who kicked what proved to be the match-winning penalty in the 76th minute.
“To go out there tonight, you saw how tough it was. Credit to the side that they are, they’re unbelievably difficult to beat and they certainly make it that way for us.”
Connacht prop Bealham, who made six tackles during an impressive 17-minute cameo, added: “(The scrum) was a proper battle. Some of the boys’ necks and backs will be sore tomorrow but that is what South Africa are class at. They are world class in the scrum, we knew it would be a big challenge but I thought we firmed up really well.
“(You) try not to think too much or pay too much attention about what the outside noise is saying about their bench or whatever’s going on. It’s about doing your job and being the best version of yourself.
“Look, all the boys that came on really added to the team, and the boys that started as well laid a tremendous platform for us lads to come on and see it home.”