The Springboks have lost a battle but the Rugby World Cup war is far from over following a night of epic drama in the seething cauldron of the sold-out Stade de France in Paris last night.
Siya Kolisi’s team was edged 13-8 by Ireland but the solace for the South Africans is that they live to fight another day — this was a pool game and both sides are likely to advance to the quarter-finals (in next week’s final pool B fixtures, the Boks play Tonga and Ireland play Scotland).
Crucially, the Boks have learned some harsh lessons ibout frailties in their goal-kicking department, their lack of quality depth at hooker after the loss of Malcolm Marx, and, chiefly, the Boks were far too charitable in their inability to cash in on their scoring opportunities.
The Boks will lick their wounds learn their lessons and take heart from the fact that in 2019 they lost a pool game before recovering to take the title.
Above all, this game was a fantastic occasion. Both teams caught their supporters by surprise by showing attacking intent throughout. Often these big games start like heavyweight boxers feeling each out, looking for weaknesses, but numbers one and two in the world went straight for the opposition jugular, and absorbing drama was guaranteed.
The brutal Boks rattled the Irish in the lineouts in the first half an hour, and the scrum pressure crept up, too, with free kicks going the way of the Boks, yet somehow Ireland hung on despite their creaking set-piece.
There was a significant moment in the 23rd minute when Damian de Allende bulldozed into Ireland kingpin Johnny Sexton and bowled the 38-year-old over, only to be stopped inches from the line.
Ireland held its breath as Sexton received medical attention and then his team survived two Springbok incursions over their line. The game surged to the other end of the field where Sexton worked a wide pass to winger Mack Hansen to nail the first try of the match.
That was the only try of a half in which the Boks’ sole score was an early penalty by Manie Libbok. They ought to have scored much more but their conversion rate of opportunities was poor.
They immediately rectified that after the break when classic Springbok power play harvested their first try. The Boks had earned a scrum deep in the Irish 22 when a long-range Faf de Klerk penalty was fumbled after it had glanced off the upright, and from the advancing scrum Libbok threaded a magical pass out to winger Cheslin Kolbe for the score.
Disturbingly, Libbok, hooked the conversion wide and his unreliable goal-kicking is a growing concern for the coaching staff. It is why the management has summoned Handre Pollard to the squad as an injury replacement for Marx and the 2019 World Cup-winning flyhalf could be entrusted with the Bok 10 jersey before the tournament is done.
Those lost two points hurt all the more when, shortly after, Sexton kicked his team into a 10-8 lead when the Boks were judged to be responsible for a collapsed scrum.
And the pain deepened for the Libbok and his teammates when he steered wide a hard-earned scrum penalty and then De Klerk shanked a penalty attempt well wide of the uprights.
And Ireland had the final say when Sexton’s replacement, Jack Crowley kicked the last points of the match.
Springboks 8 — Tries: Cheslin Kolbe. Penalties: Manie Libbok.
Ireland 13 — Tries: Mack Hansen. Penalties: Johnny Sexton, Jack Crowley. Conversions: Sexton.