Ireland saved the northern hemisphere's ailing rugby reputation with the important scalp of the world champion Springboks in foggy Dublin. Brian O'Driscoll's team capped a wonderful year for Irish rugby with a sensational victory which sent the southern hemisphere's top team home with their tails between their frozen legs.
It was an incredible end to 2009 for Irish rugby, triumphant with their first Grand Slam for 61 years last March, the Heineken Cup for Leinster in May and now the scalp of the world champions.
Their new fly-half, Jonathan Sexton, seized the headlines with all 15 points. Sexton's five perfectly struck penalty goals, from seven attempts, three of them after half-time, punished South Africa's many errors. Frankly, they were blitzed by the Welsh referee, Nigel Owens.
But never mind fussy Owens, Ireland did enough to justify their great win. They tore into the South Africans, the International Rugby Board's team of the year, making light of their great reputation. The tired, leg-weary Springboks, at the end of a long, hard year, found themselves closed down and smashed backwards in tackle after tackle.
Ireland's full-back, Rob Kearney, took the man of the match award for a sterling defensive performance. The Lions player made some crucial tackles, fielded the high ball superbly and was a commanding figure.
But every Irish player was a hero on the day. They had a job to do and they did it, with a steely drive and determination. Only in the set-scrums, where Ulster's South African tighthead prop B J Botha did so well for the Springboks, did the Irish pack look second best.
Elsewhere, Ireland were on the front foot. They broke up the usually dominant South African line-out, winning some crucial throws and making even the great Victor Matfield struggle at times.
Behind them, Tomas O'Leary showed what the Lions missed in the summer through his absence with some great sniping runs, tackling and hustling.
Schalk Burger got the Springboks' try after 16 minutes, as a switched attack caught the Irish defence exposed. Morne Steyn converted and added a penalty for a 10-6 half-time lead. But Steyn also missed three penalties and a drop-goal and his game was way off its best.
It was a famous occasion at a packed Croke Park. The fog swirled in over the ground, bringing with it temperatures that slumped close to zero. If the South Africans, conquerors of the Lions and Tri-Nations champions this year, think they have had a great season, then what about Ireland? Grand Slam winners, mighty contributors to the Lions effort and now proving themselves good enough to beat the world champions. As their captain, O'Driscoll, said: "This time last year we were in a pretty dark place. We did a lot of soul- searching; there was huge honesty shown. But to turn it around as quickly as we did is a huge credit to the management, players and everyone else involved. It comes down to the work ethic."
Declan Kidney, named IRB coach of the year, said: "The win will give us confidence but there are still things in our game we can work on. We didn't score a try so that is one thing we need to look at. But overall it was very pleasing and I thought all the boys deserved it."
The Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers, admitted defeat was "painful" but captain John Smit added: "We gave away too many penalties and Jonathan Sexton said thank you very much."
Ireland R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), P Wallace (G D'Arcy, 23), K Earls; J Sexton, T O'Leary; C Healy, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Ferris (S O'Brien, 40), D Wallace, J Heaslip.
South Africa Z Kirchner; J P Pietersen, J Fourie, W Olivier (J de Villiers, 64), B Habana; M Steyn (R Pienaar, 61), F Du Preez; T Mtawarira, J Smit (capt), BJ Botha (B du Plessis, 48), A Bekker, V Matfield, H Brussow, S Burger, D Rossouw.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content