x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

South Africa pay penalty for miskicks

Johnny Sexton was the Irish hero as they defeated the world champions South Africa in a gripping clash at Croke Park.

Ireland's Jamie Heaslip is tackled by Danie Rossouw and Mourne Steyn of South Africa.
Ireland's Jamie Heaslip is tackled by Danie Rossouw and Mourne Steyn of South Africa.

Johnny Sexton was the Irish hero as they defeated the world champions South Africa in a gripping clash at Croke Park. The Leinster fly-half, who had been a surprise selection prior to kick-off at the expense of Ronan O'Gara after making his debut against Fiji a week ago, backed up the Irish selectors with a virtuoso kicking display as he landed five penalties to account for all his team's points and ensure they finish 2009 unbeaten in all action.

Coming on the back of a 20-20 draw with Australia earlier this month, the result and battling display against on paper the best side in the world, means that Ireland can look forward with real confidence to trying to defend the Six Nations championship next year The Boks had been looking for a strong end to what had been a disappointing tour, with losses coming against France and Guinness Premiership sides Leicester and Saracens, and certainly their players looked up for the battle as a strong challenge on home full-back Rob Kearney leading to an early fiery confrontation between the sides.

Ireland had the better of the early proceedings, aided by South Africa's misfiring line-out that twice saw them lose possession on their own throw as skipper John Smit struggled at hooker with his accuracy to his forwards. The Irish claimed first blood in the ninth minute as Sexton held his nerve to kick a penalty from just inside his own half after South Africa were penalised for playing the ball off the floor at a ruck.

But with their first serious spell of pressure South Africa scored their first try to take the lead as Schalk Burger took advantage of a gap in the Irish backline to score, with Morne Steyn adding the conversion. Ireland, to their credit, immediately tried to hit back, showing the mettle and tenacity that took them to the grand slam earlier in the year, but despite spending three minutes attacking the South African line they were unable to cross the whitewash and the attack ended after David Wallace was penalised for holding on to the ball. Steyn extended the South African lead with a drop goal, but the impressive Sexton cut the gap back to four points with his second penalty on the half-hour mark.

However, South Africa were continuing to force infringements out of the Irish defence, but Steyn crucially proved errant with his boot as he missed three penalties either side of the break. Those misses proved to be extremely proved costly as Sexton successfully kicked both his opportunities in the 48th and 52nd minutes to put the Irish back in front. Scenting a famous victory the Irish poured forward, but Keith Earls was bundled out into touch as he went for the try line, before Sexton added a fifth penalty with 14 minutes to go.

Ruan Pienaar took over the kicking duties from the wayward Steyn and proved equally wayward as he missed a chance to cut the deficit with eight minutes to go, with his effort hitting the woodwork. But as the clock ticked down the South Africans piled forward and put the Irish defence under fierce pressure in the closing stages. Jean de Villiers, Tendai Mtawarira and Bryan Habana were all held up close to the line as the Irish defence refused to yield and they survived the onslaught to celebrate a famous victory.

gcaygill@thenational.ae