An inspired performance from rookie fly-half Jonny Sexton carried Ireland to a famous 15-10 victory over South Africa in a pulsating clash at Croke Park in Dublin.
Leinster's rising star was handed the No.10 shirt in favour of veteran Ronan O'Gara and the 24-year-old repaid coach Declan Kidney by kicking the Six Nations champions to a well-deserved victory over the Tri-Nations winners. Springboks flanker Schalk Burger crossed for the only try of the game in the opening period but the tourists ran out of steam and were left to rue a series of missed kicks from Morne Steyn and Ruan Pienaar.
Ireland showed a willingness to spread the ball in a refreshingly open start to the game but when play broke down they found themselves scrambling in defence and South Africa were unlucky not to take the lead with a drop goal attempt from Steyn drifting just wide.
Despite public denials of any lingering bad blood from a bruising series between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions earlier this year, it was soon evident that the game would have a significant edge. Tempers flared between Ireland fullback Rob Kearney and South African flanker Heinrich Brussow but referee Nigel Owens quickly moved to stamp it out.
The impressive opening from Ireland continued with a big tackle on Springboks lock Victor Matfield sparking a counter attack with winger Keith Earls, No.8 Jamie Heaslip and hooker Jerry Flannery involved. The Springboks were forced into a penalty just inside their own half but the distance proved no trouble for Sexton who put his side ahead with a great kick.
Back came the Springboks and a rare crooked feed call at a scrum against Ireland's Tomas O'Leary allowed the tourists to turn the screw on the Irish 22. Sensing an opening, the visitors opted to run the ball when awarded a penalty at the next scrum and they were rewarded for their courage when Burger barged his way over for the try. His score and over-the-top celebration were roundly booed by the capacity crowd with the memory of the flanker eye-gouging Irishman Luke Fitzgerald during the Lions tour still fresh in the memory of many. But Steyn was not fazed and struck the conversion to cement his side's lead.
Ireland were more than a match for their southern hemisphere rivals at the lineout where Boks skipper John Smit, back in the No.2 shirt for the first time in a year, looked more than a little vulnerable. But in contrast, the Irish scrum creaked under considerable pressure. But a great break off the back of a retreating scrum by Heaslip saw momentum change and the Irish cause was taken on by captain O'Driscoll who juggled the ball as he ghosted through the Springboks' line. But Heaslip, flanker David Wallace, prop Cian Healy and lock Donncha O'Callghan were all subsequently denied as they surged for the line by a resolute defence.
The Springboks' defence continued to frustrate the Irish at the next scrum and Wallace was eventually penalised for holding on allowing South Africa to clear the danger. Ireland's hopes were then dealt a double blow with Steyn slotting an opportunistic drop goal before centre Paddy Wallace was forced off with an injury.
Back came Ireland with replacement Gordon D'Arcy, O'Driscoll and Sexton taking the Irish into the Springboks' 22 but the chip ahead was claimed and cleared by winger Bryan Habana. But the relief was only temporary with Kearney attacking at pace on a good line from fullback with Ireland's incisive attack drawing a penalty from Brussow that was kicked by Sexton.
But a blatant nudge by O'Driscoll on Springboks scrum-half Fourie du Preez soon gifted Steyn the chance to extend his side's lead but his effort dropped just short of the posts. Further indiscipline from the Irish followed with lock Paul O'Connell the guilty party at the breakdown but again the boot of Steyn failed to punish them.
Steyn's off-day with the boot continued after the re-start with the dank conditions proving a far cry from the thin air of the high veldt. He followed up his latest miss with a high tackle on O'Driscoll that allowed Sexton the opportunity show his Springboks rival how it was done.
Lock Andries Bekker, a late replacement for the injured Bakkies Botha, was then lucky to escape with a stern word when caught dropping a knee into Wallace at a ruck and while Smit read the riot act to his team, Sexton slotted the resulting penalty to give his side the lead once more.
A good snipe from D'Arcy soon had South Africa on the back foot again but Ireland failed to capitalise on their territorial dominance and were guilty of spurning a succession of chances. Instead they had to rely on more errors from the Springboks with a penalty called against Rossouw for not releasing - but Sexton was wayward with his latest kick which served as a let off for the visitors.
The impressive Heaslip and livewire Earls then stretched the Boks' defence but the winger's kick ahead was safely claimed by Du Preez. Dewald Potgieter's attempted clearance was then charged down and lock Victor Matfield was penalised for not releasing. Sexton was back on target with the kick to the delight of O'Gara on the sidelines. But when O'Connell went off his feet at a ruck moments later, replacement fly-half Pienaar was handed the chance to cancel the score out - but he could only ht the post.
A great break from Ireland's Tommy Bowe underlined his side's growing confidence but yet another dangerous challenge - this time a high tackle by JP Pietersen - went unnoticed by the referee.
As the game built to a tense finale, Sexton stepped up in the hope of edging his side nearer victory but he could not ease the nerves of the vociferous home crowd. As a result there was still time for South Africa to try and rescue the game and their tour but a tired pass in midfield reflected the hopes of a battle-weary side.
Forced to attack from deep, replacement centre Jean de Villiers led the charge into Irish territory before the ball was worked wide to prop Tendai Mtawarira but some desperate Irish defence kept him out. The Springboks continued to press from the next scrum but another huge tackle, this time from talismanic skipper O'Driscoll, halted fullback Zane Kirchner in his tracks and the resulting penalty was sent into touch to spark wild celebrations.