Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final glass ceiling has just got even higher to smash through.
The All Blacks and the Springboks clashed in front of an enthralled 63,649 attendance in Yokohama today in their first game of these finals – and effectively for the right to win the group.
After an encounter that will go down as one of the finest pool games the tournament has seen, it was New Zealand that prevailed.
If Ireland beat Scotland at the same venue tomorrow, they will top their own pool – Pool A – avoid Steven Hansen’s world beaters in the quarter-finals and play the Boks.
If they lose and finish second in the pool, then they’ll face the in-form tournament favourites for the right to reach the semi-finals for the very first time.
Either way, it’s going to be damn tough, no matter how well Joe Schmidt’s side are going in around a month’s time.
The awesome sight of New Zealand, going for their third World Cup triumph in a row, in full flight provides a reminder that winning the meeting of the Six Nations rivals and thus, most likely, the pool itself, is a necessity.
Not that the Springboks will be anything but difficult to deal with either, mind, with their big power game.
At half-time the Boks trailed 17-3 despite bossing the game for the first quarter – and it looked as if their lack of invention and creativity could be exploited by an Ireland side peaking at the right moment.
But in a thrilling start to the second half, they showed they do have some attacking nous in their locker – perhaps provided by their new attack coach Felix Jones, who recently joined the Boks backroom team to work again with Munster’s former supremo, Rassie Erasmus.
Earlier, in those first 20 minutes, Erasmus’ outfit looked primed to dominate this battle of the heavyweights.
Having beaten the All Blacks in Wellington in the Rugby Championship, the fully confident Boks were in total control in that opening quarter.
Nevertheless, the All Blacks clicked into demolition mode when they had to.
And within seven lethal minutes several of the men in green and gold were trooping back behind the posts, heads in hands, after coughing up two magnificent tries.
They took the lead as early as the second minute when Handre Pollard split the posts from a penalty that flew more than 50 metres.
Then they penned in their rivals with fierce and disciplined tackling.
When the All Blacks tried to break out they were quickly hunted down and put down, a 19th minute Pollard penalty came back off the post that he really should have converted.
It was at that moment that the All Blacks woke up and sprung into wondrous life.
The first signs of change were evident in the 22nd minute when out-half Richie Mo’unga pounced on a loose pass by Faf de Clerk.
Though he was chased down close to the tryline by Makazole Mapimpi, the Kiwis won a penalty in front of the posts Mo’Unga converted.
The real magic came three minutes later – Mo’unga’s chip to the right touchline forced Sevu Reece to take the ball in a standing position, but he swerved past Mapimpi as if he wasn’t there and was away.
Aaron Smith provided the support and he found Ardie Savea.
The flanker fed full-back Beauden Barrett, who waited until the right moment before sending George Bridge over for a try that was converted.
The Boks barely had time to catch their breath before they were gracefully cut open again.
This time Anton Lienert-Brown cut in from the left wing and somehow slalomed his way through the tightest of spaces left by two defenders.
His off-load was so well timed that Wille Le Roux, the Boks’ last man back, didn’t even touch him as Barrett sauntered into acres of space to score.
South Africa gathered themselves and there were signs before the break that they could regain a foothold in the game.
Their liveline arrived in the 48th minute. the outstanding Cheslin Kobe’s searing break was denied a try by brilliant covering tackle by Mo’unga in the corner.
But the All Blacks coughed up possession under pressure and Pieter-Steph du Toit leapt from the ruck with the ball to score, with Pollard adding the extras.
It was end to end stuff before, as the hour mark approached, Pollard edged the Boks closer just before the hour mark with a perfectly-struck drop-goal, making it a three point game.
But the All Blacks cleverly took the sting out of it thereafter, with Mo’unga twice taking advantage of Boks indiscipline in the 66th and 73rd minutes to move his side 10 clear.
There was one big push left in Erasmus’ side and Kolbe provided it with an improbable ping-balling run that crashed and propelled him back into the All Blacks’ 22.
However New Zealand’s defence shut the door and the game ended with the All Blacks’ superiority in this tournament still intact.
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