PARIS, France -- This was a statement victory from Ireland. It was them telling the rest of the world that there's no danger of them choking at a Rugby World Cup. If they're not going to be the team standing lifting the Webb Ellis Cup on October 28, it's going to take something truly remarkable to stop them.
It ended up Ireland 13-8 South Africa in one of the most pulsating, enthralling and brutal rugby matches we've seen in recent years. It was a contest where you dared not blink for fear of missing a game-changing moment. And this inescapable contest stretched from the first time Johnny Sexton hoisted the ball in the air, to the last throes where the Boks' trundling pack was halted on Ireland's line and the final whistle granted everyone in the stadium permission to exhale.
Tonight Paris is green, and it'll be one of those matches where the attendance will stretch to 250,000 given the number of people who'll one day claimed to have been there.
It's been a wonderful 24 hours in Paris as the city was wrapped in rugby. Whichever corner you turned, or bistro you passed, they were overflowing with either the green of Ireland, or the green and gold of the Springboks. The official estimate is there were roughly 35,000 Irish fans in Paris for the match, but depending on which district you were in, which bar you were outside, the estimates slipped in favour of the other team. It was a kaleidoscopic experience, the sort the hosts would have dreamt of when they were awarded the tournament as this was rugby in all its brilliance with an atmosphere which married the ferocious, unrelenting nature of the play on the field.
What was most remarkable about this was not only the relentlessness of it all but also the precision. In a World Cup where we've seen matches tainted, or at least moulded off the back of yellow or red cards, this was a flowing contest but never once wanting for physicality. The tackles were precise but bludgeoning, the handling delicate but also blink-and-you-miss-it quick. The deftness of the kicking was subtle but acted as a scythe through the two incredible well-organised sides.
For Ireland this was a curing victory. After all those years and tournaments where they've headed home on a plane with a familiar feeling of regret and heart-breaking reflective analysis of serendipitous moments which went against them, you feel they've left those demons behind. They're number one in the world and they've grown into that status rather than cowered away from it. For all the talk of the Boks' 7-1 split on the bench this week, Ireland have ignored it and stuck to what's served them so well. That's the hallmark of this Andy Farrell team - he's worked out what his best team is, tweaked the odd bit here and there but kept the faith with the spine that's delivered so much already.
The World Cup was always going to be the ultimate hurdle at the end of quadrennial cycle. They've tried and failed to reach the summit of the sport, but you feel this time if they don't manage to end up with the trophy then it won't be on them, it'll be because of something truly astonishing on the opposite side of the pitch.
Credit must go to Farrell and his meticulous planning and ability to keep a team focused and growing match on match. But also this was all about his players on the field, the in-game management of Sexton, but also the delicate brutality of the backs, and the controlled aggression of the pack and their collective ability to re-focus time and time again. Nothing seemed to rile them. There were no flash points. There was never a moment where you felt like they were losing control. Instead they grew into the match right until the end where Jack Crowley stroked home a 77th minute penalty to give Ireland the five-point lead.
The match was always on a knife edge, and the stall was set out in the opening minute where Ronan Kelleher put in a monster tackle on Damien Willemse. Ireland stood up to the task in the opening moments, Sexton opting to kick for touch instead of taking a near-guaranteed three points after just two minutes but Ireland failed to get a foothold in the match as their set piece faltered. The Ireland lineout started poorly, losing five of their first eight in the opening 20 minutes but as the play flitted from one end of the field to the other, there were chances and glimpses of opportunity but both defences stood tall. Eben Etzebeth was everywhere for the Boks and the crowd held its collective breath in the 21st minute as Sexton picked up a stinger off Damian de Allende, but this wasn't an occasion he was going to miss. Caelan Doris was tackling anything and everything in the Boks' white change strip while Bundee Aki was rampaging around and through the Boks' defence. And that all eventually led to Mack Hansen's 33rd minute score as he found a way through the Boks' defence and temporarily broke their resolve.
The Boks were there on their heels though, the whole way through. They had two great opportunities to score in the first half but came up a metre short on both occasions but eventually it was Cheslin Kolbe who broke the deadlock in the 51st minute as he danced over. But the conversion was missed and this proved to be part of their downfall. The Boks and left 11 points out on the field. Goal-kicking is a real issue for this team. Manie Libbok missed the conversion and a penalty, while Faf de Klerk missed two long-range penalties. There they lost a chance to pile the pressure on Ireland while they also lost the contact area.
In the final play of the game, the Boks won a five-metre scrum and had the Irish tryline in their sights, but the maul went down, the ball dead, and those in green celebrated. South Africa had chances to win this match, but it just wasn't to be.
Post-match Jacques Nienaber said they will learn from this and the younger players like Libbok and Kurt-Lee Arendse will take a chance to breathe and pick apart the experience and what they can take from it. For all the talk of the 7-1 split on the bench, they did judge their replacements well and both times they changed their props they won the next scrum penalty but, on each occasion, Ireland just found a way to swing the balance of the match back in their favour. And that was the tale of the match - whatever the Boks threw at Ireland, Farrell's side found a way to recalibrate, reset and go again.
There's every chance we may see these two sides in the final come October 28. Ireland now have the week break where they'll reset some bruised bodies and focus on Scotland on October 7. For the Boks, they have an eight-day turnaround and have Tonga next up with Handre Pollard waiting in the wings as one answer to their goal-kicking problems.
But the thing about tonight is we'll only really know the importance of this match come the final. Four years ago the Springboks lost a pool match to the All Blacks and won the tournament. After the match Nienaber was asked if the Boks can still win the World Cup. Siya Kolisi laughed at the question, Nienaber responded: "Of course". This won't dent their chances, and at this level, it's small margins but the victory will boost Ireland's self-belief.
As the full-time whistle went, the Ireland players celebrated on the bench, the crowd erupted and those on the pitch either fell to the floor in exhaustion and relief, or just let out a guttural roar. It was relief, but also a roar of self-belief and defiance. A moment where ghosts of World Cups past were exorcised, and a statement sent to the rest of the tournament.