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Ireland versus South Africa was as good as it gets

By Sam Roberts
Bundee aki of Ireland celebrates during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between South Africa and Ireland at Stade de France on September 23, 2023, in Saint-Denis near Paris, France. (Photo by Christian Liewig - Corbis/Getty Images)

Stack all the chairs and put away the bunting. Close all the doors and turn off the lights. Even though this Rugby World Cup tournament has just over a month to run, we should all go home. It has delivered the best game it could. It won’t be bettered, even if these two teams make the final. Ireland and South Africa captured every shot, nailed every line, hit every mark. This was rugby as if Hollywood had suddenly got its best script writers round a table and the juices had started to flow. It was Balboa rugby: as outrageous as it was enveloping.


It was lapped up voraciously. Watching in the stadium or on whatever television set you could get in front of, it captivated and intrigued. For every punch thrown, the duck and weave sparkled in its wake. Each side showed a bastille in keeping with the host city: heroic, gutsy, clever. Both attacks fired shots but it appeared that defences were able to pop their fingers in the barrel. Points should never represent how good a game is. This was the cliched low scoring classic: as good as it gets.

The evening wasn’t without a nuanced storyline, either. Ireland’s lineout miscued early on and the panic was being felt all the way back in Limerick. But they switched to a shortened five man version of their set piece and things started to click. And then, as the second half unfurled, we didn’t get many lineouts. The ‘Boks kicked at goal unsuccessfully and up in the air, rather than to the touch line. Scrums became the order of the day. Oh, how Irish pillars held. The foundations laid deep over the last few assiduous, indefatigable years.

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There were beautiful nods to the past, too. Oscar-winning storylines rarely contain anything other than reinvention. Ireland’s first half Mack Hansen try owed so much to Sexton’s loop and dummy, a move so old many reckon William Webb Ellis had tried it first. A move so well known many thought South Africa wouldn’t fall for it.

Many thought South Africa wouldn’t fall for any of it. Rasping victories over the All Blacks, Scotland and Romania of late had convinced most World Cup watchers that there was no better side than the ‘Boks. Even staunch Irish fans winced when the teams were announced. It wasn’t so much the 7-1 split of the bench as the 23 names of the whole squad that was morally unfair. How can one country have so many large and accomplished rugby players? Surely they should share them round?

But if the size of the dog in the fight had grabbed the headlines, the size of the fight in the dog was in the small print. Irish players embodied something ethereal. Something stronger than any bicep or thigh. Strength of physicality must always yield to strength of will. As Celtic voices bellowed their best hymn, those dressed in emerald green on the pitch swelled in resolve. Great music can stiffen any soul; soundtracks don’t come much better than the Fields of Athenry. If John Williams was watching, he would have nodded appreciatively.


The individual scenes of this blockbuster sparkled. Faf hitting the post and then Ireland turning the ball over in their own 22. Bundee Aki hefting a large hole in the middle of the park just moments after affecting a wonderful try saving tackle of his own. Damian De Allende, Aki’s sparring partner for the evening, was equally brilliant.


How have South Africa doubted his worth? Willemse’s six foot sidestep launching Ringrose into a full length leap to try and lay a finger on him. Libbok’s missile of a pass to find Kolbe for South Africa’s try: the ball looping in seeming slow motion was very much in keeping with the spectacle. Visceral punch and counter punch as though Stallone himself had directed them. Pictures weaving themselves into the hippocampus of the evening.

The dialogue crackled, also. On the referee’s microphone, various accents spat and seethed with accusation and counter claim. Ben O’Keefe was impeccably unmoved. Every script needs its silences, its pauses, its knowing glances. The New Zealand referee was brilliantly cast. He didn’t steal focus, more guide us from moment to moment. He made some big calls but, essentially, kept himself in the background.

Ireland South Africa Ireland
Hugo Keenan hands off Jessie Kriel – PA

Every minute ached with importance. Eighty in a game of rugby and each stood shoulder to shoulder with the last. The final sixty seconds represented the whole contest. A kick to the corner from the inquisitive ‘Boks and the final question asked of Ireland’s heart. Paris rang out with Dolores O’Riordan’s much loved tribal tones. South Africa had brought their bombs and their guns; in your head, in your head, they are crying.


Where do we go from here? Maybe they can meet again and, if they do, we will all buy the tickets. But sequels rarely beat the original. Maybe, maybe. What a quest the World Cup now has to try and beat that cinematic masterclass. Mack Hansen dropping the ‘f bomb’ on TV was the perfect post match script. Because Ireland beating South Africa had been fucking brilliant.



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