As Ireland basked in the latest addition to an ever-expanding portfolio of prize-fight triumphs, and as South Africa grappled with the rare sensation of actually losing a World Cup match, it was hard not to think that this was exactly what this tournament needed.
On Thursday, France flirted with the 100-point mark against Namibia, a demolition job that was overshadowed by growing fears that the World Cup was about to lose its poster boy Antoine Dupont.
Argentina’s win over Samoa in Saint-Etienne on Friday will not live long in the memory, while on Saturday, the media who travelled to Saint Denis for the weekend’s headline fixture were greeted by countless televisions showing an Henry Arundell-inspired England overwhelm Chile, the lowest-ranked side in the tournament.
So it was left to the world’s top two sides to serve up a thunderous Test match that gave the tournament a timely shot in the arm 24 hours before Australia, another wounded southern hemisphere titan, take on Wales in Lyon.
Surpassing the hype is not a strange concept to Ireland. In February, they sank France in a heart-stopping Six Nations showdown in Dublin, but their first-ever World Cup meeting with the Springboks took things to a different level as the champions and pretenders electrified the Stade de France.
Ireland find their way out of trouble
On the eve of the match, Ireland forward coach Paul O’Connell spoke about how he loves watching the team figure out a game as they go along. He counts adaptation and execution among Ireland’s finest traits.
Numerous line-out malfunctions would have been uncomfortable viewing for O’Connell on Saturday, but he will have taken great satisfaction watching the players overcome an error-strewn performance to experience one of their greatest nights on the sport’s biggest stage.
Ireland were a bag of nerves at times. The line-outs were hard to watch, they looked inferior in the scrum and they failed to convert the type of chances they usually gobble up with minimal fuss.
All of a sudden the series win over New Zealand and the Grand Slam were distant memories. The occasion was getting to them.
But Ireland have now won 28 out of their past 30 Tests and you do not build such an astounding body of work with a soft underbelly.
They rolled with the punches – which, coming from a beastly Boks side, were harder than usual – and pierced the opposition defence with a Mack Hansen try, the first South Africa had conceded at the tournament since the 2019 World Cup semi-final win over Wales.
In the second half, the Boks huffed and puffed but stubborn Irish defending dragged the men in green to the finish line.
“I think as the competition goes on we need to be better, there were a few bits of inaccuracies,” said Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, who happily revealed he had no fresh injury concerns despite the ferocity of South Africa’s tackling.
“But we were again able to find a way out of the trouble. We have got very good at not being too emotional and staying on task.”
Ireland had to wait 938 days to have a crack at the world champions in Paris. Belief within the squad is clearly building, but Johnny Sexton has been burned by this competition before.
He knows big pool stage wins can be false dawns and that is the mindset he is drilling into those Irish players who do not carry with them the ghosts of World Cups past like he does.
“This honestly does not have any bearing on the title or the quarter-finals,” said the 38-year-old.
“It was just another game, we are trying to make sure we get out of the pool.
“We cannot look beyond the next game, that is the biggest lesson we can take from past World Cups.”
‘Ireland were better, no complaints’
While Sexton exited the field to rapturous applause, his opposite number Manie Libbok endured a difficult night in the French capital – the Springboks fly-half missing a conversion and a penalty after having opened the night with a successful three-pointer.
Sexton said he could empathise with Libbok, having experienced kicking woes of his own at the 2011 World Cup.
Faf de Klerk, South Africa’s pocket rocket scrum-half, also failed to slot two place kicks on a night when the spectre of master goal-kicker Handre Pollard loomed large.
Jacques Nienaber’s side regularly put Ireland on the back foot. The ‘Bomb Squad’ of seven replacement forwards, which occupied so many newspaper column inches in the build-up, offered renewed purpose in the second half.
Ultimately, though, an unconverted Cheslin Kolbe try was a disappointing return for South Africa’s numerous entries into the Irish 22.
“Hats off to Ireland, we missed a couple of points off the tee but I won’t say it’s only goal-kicking (that was the problem),” Nienaber said.
“We lost two balls close to the Ireland tryline and we had another opportunity late on in the game. Ireland were better than us on the night, no complaints.”
South Africa are down but not out, of course. They are still on track to reach the quarter-finals and could meet Ireland again in the final if both teams make it that far.
As for Ireland, this game had been marked on the calendar for what seemed like an eternity. It did not overwhelm them, but there is still a lot of work to be done before they return to the Stade de France to face Scotland in a fortnight.
What they do not need to work on is thrilling the crowd. They did just that on Saturday on a night when the World Cup burst back into life. Now it is over to Sunday’s high-stakes Pool C match between Wales and Australia. Hopefully that keeps the momentum going.