Weary Boks confirm Irish rise in status

Ireland 15 South Africa 10
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The Independent Online

The question to South Africa captain John Smit was direct, the answer even more so. "John, which Irish players impressed you?" "All of them," replied Smit, with a rueful smile.

In particular, one assumes, his leadership counterpart Brian O'Driscoll who followed up his inspirational displays on the Lions summer tour with the type of all-encompassing outing that has characterised his 2009 – making the decision to award the IRB Player of the Year award to Richie McCaw harder to fathom.

It was a performance book-ended perfectly by his bone-shuddering hit on full-back Zane Kirchner as the Springboks hunted a last-play winning score at Croke Park – a tackle that left O'Driscoll on his back and South Africa's end-of-season aspirations in tatters.

They had a good enough '09 in any case, picking up the Lions series, TriNations title and Team of the Year award along the way – today is a day to talk of their conquerors. It is not that long since the Ireland team was an international rugby punchline in the dark ages, also known as the 1990s; the Paddies who huffed and puffed for 60 minutes before you blew their house away in the last 20.

The side that lost twice to Namibia, three times to a pre-Six Nations Italy and once to Samoa in Dublin, the one that was humiliated regularly in Paris, London and, for pity's sake, Edinburgh and the one that created a dastardly cocktail involving a mixture of anticipation, capitulation, frustration and the key ingredient for supporters, (and a succession of coaches) resignation.

No squad under Declan Kidney's control is going to be anything other than grounded and though his players will never be allowed to get ahead of themselves, the 2011 World Cup development scheme is operating smoothly and, this time, Ireland will be genuine contenders.

Ireland's success in November was founded on the men in Kidney's front row seats. Tight-head John Hayes and hooker Jerry Flannery went into the three-match series chronically short of game-time but their coach gambled on the Munster pair's experience and capacity to play their way through.

At loose-head, it was another big afternoon for young Cian Healy who was given a gruelling examination by Brendon Botha, one of the finest tutors in the game. The Ulster prop went through his full box of tricks and put enormous pressure on Healy and the Irish scrum but, just as he had in similar circumstances against Australia, Healy stuck at it and the Irish platform steadied as the game progressed – helped by Botha's absence from shortly after half-time.

Around the park, Healy was again one of Ireland's go-to men, in attack and defence and behind the front three, Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell had massive games, comfortably superior to Andries Bekker and Victor Matfield.

Kidney's biggest, and most scrutinised, call was selecting Jonathan Sexton ahead of Ronan O'Gara at outside-half on the basis of the need to "find out more" about the Leinster man and it was another one that paid off handsomely. Sexton looked composed throughout, finding his men and taking his options with calm authority while slotting the five winning penalties. What Kidney does for the Six Nations remains to be seen but he now knows beyond any doubt that he has two top quality out-halves.

The scrum will come in for criticism, particularly with the Italians first-up, and the breakdown was an issue also, but both will get better and the main area for improvement is in the area of decision-making close to their opponents' line. However, in the scenario of having a settled squad with options in every area and one that has forgotten how to lose, having areas to improve on is no bad thing.

Ireland: Penalties Sexton 5. South Africa: Try Burger; Conversion Steyn; Drop goal Steyn

Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, P Wallace, K Earls; J Sexton, T O'Leary; C Healy, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip. Replacements: G D'Arcy for Wallace, 34; S O'Brien for Ferris, 40

South Africa: Z Kirchner; JP Pietersen, J Fourie, W Olivier, B Habana; M Steyn, F du Preez; T Mtawarira, J Smit (capt), BJ Botha; A Bekker, V Matfield; H Brussow, S Burger, D Rossouw. Replacements: J De Villiers for Olivier, 65; R Pienaar for Steyn, 61; B Du Plessis for Botha, 48; D Potgeiter for Bekker, 69

Referee: N Owens (Wales)