tantalising | 

Andy Farrell’s side were immense, unbending, confidently standing up to the hardest questions

I know we can get ahead of ourselves after pulsating nights like this, yet there was so much in this performance to have Irish fans licking their lips with authentic anticipation.

Mack Hansen scores for Ireland© SPORTSFILE

Mick GalweySunday World

THIS was stunning, immense, tear-jerking stuff from Ireland, a victory for ambition and defiance, a thunderous declaration of World Cup credentials.

Andy Farrell’s side were immense, unbending, confidently standing up to the hardest questions that an enormous, brutish, sledgehammer-wielding South African team could offer.

And then, as cold-blooded as professional assassins, delivering a pair of unforgettable counter punches that yielded tries for Josh van der Flier and Mack Hansen.

I know we can get ahead of ourselves after pulsating nights like this.

Yet there was so much in this performance to have Irish fans licking their lips with authentic anticipation ten months out from a World Cup which will define this team.

To lose three key players – Tadhg Furlong, Conor Murray and Stewart McCloskey – in a barbarous and compelling first half, to take South Africa’s most concussive punches without taking a backward step, to withstand that incredible final charge from the visitors.

My God, that is hugely, hugely impressive.

The noise that filled the old arena was deafening, a crowd understanding the significance of this statement victory.

Ireland’s defence was eye-catching and courageous in the opening period and again in the final quarter; their ability to locate the jugular in the second was better again – calling cards of a team on the cusp of greatness.

Ireland went toe to toe with the biggest, toughest team on earth and came out on top.

The line-out maul that yielded an opening try for the phenomenal van der Flier was wonderful.

But the second Irish score was better again, as good as it gets.

From Keenan’s accomplished aerial take, to Caelan Doris’s presence of mind to keep the ball in play, to Jamison Gibson-Park’s devastating break and inch-perfect pass, the execution carried the hallmark of champions.

It is genuinely mind-boggling to think that this was a first appearance of the season for Keenan and Gibson-Park.

The pre-match statistics offered an abundance of reasons to march into the Aviva laden with hope.

Ireland perched atop the world summit, winners of 14 of their last 16 tests, nine-in-a-row at home.

But a nation’s place on rugby’s food chain is not determined by a pop chart analysis of their standing.

Rugby’s supreme court issues its judgement based on World Cup evidence – and, whatever the rankings suggest, South Africa proved themselves top dogs when it mattered.

The recent past illustrates where November internationals sit in the greater scheme of things.

Ireland recorded a record-breaking victory over the Springboks in Dublin five years ago, but a little over 18 months later it was South Africa lifting the Webb Ellis trophy.

Crashing

And Ireland again crashing out of a World Cup in the quarter-final.

But by the end of a feverish, absorbing contest, this felt like a huge statement from a team intent on going where no Irish team had gone before.

This was never going to be a game determined by artistic merit.

Here was a test match of brutal physicality, feral, visceral, a sequence of huge, punishing hits.

This was rugby as trench warfare, asking the deepest questions of players courage, demanding they stand up to all those pitiless hits from huge powerhouse opponents.

Cheslin Kolbe was fortunate to escape with a yellow card for a tip tackle on Mack Hansen – the Irish wing was driven down into the turf and seemed to land on his head.

Clearly, it was dangerous play.

I felt terribly story for Murray and McCloskey.

A special day for Conor, the fourth Munster man to win 100 international caps, an extraordinary achievement, was cut short before half-time by what seemed to be a hamstring pull.

McCloskey – in at the 11th hour for Robbie Henshaw – had started very impressively, bringing his Ulster form and physicality with him to the international stage.

His shoulder injury was the sort of collateral damage a team endures against a team as ferocious as the ’Boks.

Furlong was another in the wars in that first 40 minutes – as fierce and frightful a battle as can be imagined.

With Ireland already stripped of Henshaw and the suspended Bundee Aki, serious questions were know being asked about the depth available to Andy Farrell.

The answers were remarkably impressive.

There were no tries in the first half and precious few line breaks. That’s how it is when South Africa are in town.

Ireland were pinned in for much of the first half an hour and certainly had to work harder for their points as the sides retreated to the dressing rooms deadlocked at 6-6.

But they held strong. Then came that thrilling detonation of second half brilliance followed by a capacity not to buckle as South Africa turned the screw.

In victory, Ireland looked like a team with the world at their feet.


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