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Mack Hansen helps Ireland outmuscle world champions South Africa in thrilling Rugby World Cup clash

STADE DE FRANCE — Mack Hansen left South Africa ruing their struggles from the kicking tee as Ireland secured a hard-fought 13-8 victory over the reigning world champions.

Hansen’s try, his side’s only one of the match, virtually secured Ireland’s place in the quarter-finals but more importantly gave them a psychologically huge victory over a side many predict they will face here again in a month’s time with the Rugby World Cup on the line.

Ireland weathered the second-half storm created by the arrival of the Springbok “Bomb Squad” of seven forward on the bench, which did help create Cheslin Kolbe’s 51st-minute try, but two more penalties, both won by the Irish scrum, were enough to earn them a seismic victory.

But South Africa will believe they had enough in the tank to beat the world No 1 side, only for Manie Libbok and Faf de Klerk to leave 11 points on the pitch in missed kicks.

“It was one hell of a game. Ireland brought it to us but I am proud of the boys for sticking in there and giving it our all,” fly-half Libbok said.

“We were unlucky.

“Obviously in a game like this you have to take your points and you have to convert pressure into points. Unfortunately we didn’t get it right.”

Before the Rugby World Cup, Eddie Jones explained that he thought this tournament would be defined by rugby played in short, sharp bursts. If this game was anything to go by the under-pressure Australia coach can take up picking the lottery numbers full-time if he gets the sack.

The opening minutes at the Stade de France were exactly that: intense, controlled aggression punctuated by regular stoppages. Rather than frustrate fans though, it gave them the chance to draw breath.

Both teams were keen to make an early statement, with Ronan Kelleher taking the honour of the first bone-crunching hit. In some ways though, that was style over substance as his line-out misfired five times out of 12 in the first half.

The Ireland tacticians were keen to make a statement too, refusing the chance to knock a third-minute penalty between the posts and instead kicking to the corner, only for Kelleher’s struggles to give the ball straight back to South Africa.

Instead it was Manie Libbok who opened the scoring with a sixth-minute penalty, landing the first blow of any meaning, but it was Ireland who finally scored the first knockdown. Mack Hansen crossed over on the right-hand side after Bundee Aki broke out of his own 22 and into the oppositions, following up his Player of the Match performance against Tonga with another barnstormer.

Ireland might have been concerned with surviving the onslaught that they knew was coming the second half from the seven forwards waiting on the bench. Garry Ringrose had gone off for a Head Injury Assessment and also seemed to injure his shoulder after trying to make a tackle on Jesse Kriel, while Johnny Sexton also looked like he might be in trouble after bringing down Damian de Allende.

Exactly how much damage was done to each man’s right shoulder may be a matter for the physios next week but both were able to resume and play key roles in the next 40 minutes of rugby.

And they were needed too because South Africa are not world champions by accident and did come back after half-time renewed. Rassie Erasmus pressed the big red button and sent on “Bomb Squad” at a prescient moment with a Springbok put-in to the scrum on the Irish line in the offing. They won a strong scrum and Libbok threw a fine long pass wide to Kolbe who finished and had the presence of mind to run it towards the posts and make the kick easier.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2023 - Pool B - South Africa v Ireland - Stade de France, Saint-Denis, France - September 23, 2023 South Africa's Jasper Wiese clashes with Ireland's Andrew Porter REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Andrew Porter (right) stood up to the physical challenge of scrummaging against South Africa (Photo: Reuters)

But Libbok could not extend the lead, and combined with two long penalty misses from De Klerk, South Africa now have a sub-50 per cent success rate from the tee in this World Cup. They have slotted just 11 of 23 kicks, the worst percentage of any team to have taken at least five kicks in the tournament.

That scrum might have sounded warning bells in the Ireland coaching box, but they did not panic. Andrew Porter stayed on and delivered with a penalty against Frans Malherbe on the hour mark that allowed Sexton an easy kick to regain the lead.

You could sense South Africa’s frustration. Everything they threw at Ireland, Andy Farrell’s men took. Ringrose was winning jackal penalties, Sexton was getting up every time Pieter-Steph du Toit hit him just a bit too late and pushed off him to get up, and James Lowe was making sure the Springboks knew about out every time referee Ben O’Keeffe’s arm went up in his team’s direction.

That said, it did not feel like anyone overstepped the mark. In a game of unquantifiable physicality, where nearly every tackle felt like it might have broken a bone, there were no yellow or red cards, no high tackles and no late tackle penalties. Perhaps the citing commissioner will change that, but for now, this was a game of the highest quality.

Fittingly, Ireland sealed victory with a kick from another scrum penalty right in front of the posts, Jack Crowley converting easily.

There was one final challenge for Ireland, a line-out on their own five-metre line, but once again they rose to the challenge. Paul O’Connell, their line-out coach who watched his unit flail on their own ball in the first half, would have smiled with satisfaction as they held up a 13-man South African maul and forced the game-ending scrum.

The World Cup is not won. But this Ireland team must surely believe now.

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