PARIS — Top-ranked Ireland just edged the Rugby World Cup's second clash of the titans, withstanding No. 2-ranked South Africa's physicality and profiting from its wasteful kicking to win 13-8 in a ferocious encounter on Saturday.
Right winger Mack Hansen scored Ireland's try after 33 minutes — the first South Africa conceded in this tournament — and left winger Cheslin Kolbe replied with a try for the Springboks early in the second half of a gripping contest.
“How we managed to stay on point mentally was fantastic. How we kept our heads is the real plus side,” Ireland coach Andy Farrell said. “We rolled with the punches, and came out strong on the other side.”
Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton was proud of how his team dealt with the Springboks' physical challenge.
“I don’t know how we do it time after time. We didn’t want to let (the fans) down,” Sexton said. “I thought we fronted up and gave a really good account of ourselves.”
South Africa was on top for considerable spells but paid the price for poor goalkicking from flyhalf Manie Libbok and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, who missed a combined four of five and left 11 points in the wind.
“We created such good opportunities,” South Africa captain Siya Kolisi said. “In a game like this, if you don’t take your opportunities this is what happens.”
After Sexton's penalty put Ireland ahead 10-8 an hour in, his replacement Jack Crowley slotted a 77th-minute penalty to leave South Africa needing a try to draw and a converted score to win.
The Springboks earned a lineout 10 meters from the Irish line but the maul was smothered and they couldn't recycle the ball quickly enough before the play was whistled and the game was over.
Ireland beat the defending champions for the second time in 10 months and for the first time at the Rugby World Cup.
Ireland extended its test-win streak to 16 and will likely top Pool B, thus probably avoiding host France in the quarterfinals and setting up a meeting with three-time champion New Zealand.
The second heavyweight clash of the tournament followed France’s opening-night 27-13 win against the All Blacks, and had a crackling aura of expectation about it.
“Hats off to Ireland, they were better than us on the night,” South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber said. “This was like a knockout game, a quarterfinal or a semifinal. This is what you would expect.”
Roared on by a huge contingent of fans at the 80,000-capacity Stade de France, the Irish showed their intent by taking an attacking lineout from the first penalty. They lost the throw and then had to defend ferociously on South Africa’s foray forward, which ended with an infringement in the ruck giving Libbok a penalty for 3-0. That was the only kick he made.
Ireland notched a third straight win against the Springboks, while the northern hemisphere big guns made it 2-0 against the southern hemisphere so far at the Rugby World Cup.
The hits were big, no quarter asked. Ireland center Garry Ringrose went off for a head injury check and went back on during a bone-crunching first half. South Africa looked a composed side for most of it, while Ireland’s erratic lineouts betrayed early nerves.
A brilliant run down the left from fullback Hugo Keenan surprised South Africa after 12 intense minutes, but otherwise the Springboks took control. When Faf de Klerk’s pass inside to Jesse Kriel was wasted, Ireland got a reprieve.
The Irish fans belted out “The Fields of Athenry” to gee their team up. It worked, as Bundee Aki broke from midfield on a surging run. It was South Africa’s turn to defend again: 32 minutes on the clock, attacking lineout for Ireland, their fans near the left touchline on their feet.
“Someone said 30,000 fans. No way, more like 60,000,” Sexton said. “It really lifted us.”
The ball reached star flyhalf Sexton. He was held up near the line after a brilliant dummy pass and dart inside. Ireland recycled and James Lowe flicked to an unmarked Hansen to score in the right corner. Sexton converted for 7-3.
South Africa started the second half on the back foot after losing their own lineout when lock Eben Etzebeth was beaten. Then, de Klerk’s penalty from just behind halfway hit the left upright.
Nienaber loaded forwards on a 7-1 bench, and soon brought on prop Ox Nche and lock RG Snyman.
The move immediately paid off, as Ireland’s scrum was pushed back and the ball was moved swiftly to the left where Kolbe had plenty of room to score. Libbok took his time with the conversion, and still fluffed it.
It’s risky to miss against Ireland.
Sexton made no mistake in front of the posts for a 10-8 lead, and with 20 minutes left “The Fields of Athenry” became louder as Irish belief grew, even more when Libbok botched a penalty from wide left.
But Ireland’s defense was creaking.
De Klerk took charge of the next penalty, from a similar distance to his first, and sent this one wide right.
More points wasted, and wondered about.
Ireland took a long lap of honor, and joined in when their fans took over singing the Cranberries' “Zombie” being broadcast over the stadium speakers.
Ireland began the tournament with an 82-8 rout of Romania and followed up by dispatching Tonga 59-16.
Momentum is building nicely and Scotland is next in two weeks.
“We’ve got to make it count now, back it up against Scotland,” Sexton said.
South Africa started by beating Scotland 18-3, then blanked Romania 76-0, and concludes its pool round against Tonga next Sunday.
“If we slip up against Tonga we won’t even get to a quarterfinal,” Nienaber said. “To even think about playing France is getting ahead of ourselves.”