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Player Ratings: Holding onto No.1 spot

OPINION: Ireland player ratings live from Aviva Stadium: This was a humdinger to warm the Irish hearts. It was four years ago, just after the Springboks were shellacked on their last visit to Dublin, that Rassie Erasmus hatched his grand plan to return home from Munster and gloriously revive the World Cup-winning South Africa.

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Now back in town for his 50th birthday and his first working Test match after the expiry of his lengthy stadium ban, he will realise he will have to work some more of his rejuvenation magic again as Ireland deservedly bagged the bragging rights ten months out from the Parisian pool showdown between the heavyweight pair at the next World Cup.

South Africa were left to rue a difficult day for Damian Willemse, a day where their collective brawn was not enough to eclipse the Irish brain which was ultimately sufficient to see out the gripping 19-16 success.

Touted by many as the biggest fixture of the entire Autumn Nations Series, once you got beyond the nonsensical jersey colour clash you had a tooth-and-nail battle to savour between an Ireland XV showing four backline changes from their July series-clinching win over the All Blacks and a South African selection that had been inconsistent across the recent Rugby Championship.

Those inconsistencies reappeared and it was enough to tip the outcome. Early penalties for offside were exchanged for a 3-3 deadlock before the gladiatorial contest – in which knock-ons and the Irish maul defence were an early feature – became poised to accelerate with the 17th-minute sin-binning of Cheslin Kolbe, but not in the way it was imagined.

Rather than Ireland pushing on and making hay with their numerical advantage, the ensuing spell was one of South African dominance and had Damian Willemse not scuffed a penalty kick and then sent another kickable award unfruitfully to touch, they could have ‘won’ the ten minutes six points to nil.

Instead, it 15-versus-14 passage passed without a score and the half was to end with a repeat of the early-game exchange of a solitary penalty each, Johnny Sexton landing his second and Kolbe taking over on the tee from Willemse.

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The engrossing arm wrestle lurched Ireland’s way early in the second half. First came the decision to ignore penalty points and claw instead at the corner, setting up Josh van der Flier for his 47th-minute maul try. Two minutes later Mack Hansen was cantering in unopposed at the corner for another unconverted try and a sudden 16-6 lead that became precarious when the Springboks struck back with Franco Mostert’s unconverted 67th-minute score.

The five-point gap guaranteed a grandstand finish that eventually toppled in favour of the Irish/. Sexton landed his 74rd-minute kick for a two-score cushion despite the cat-calls in the stadium from the Springboks fans jeering his run-up before home nerves frayed again with Kurt-Lee Arendse’s unconverted try two minutes later. Here are the Ireland player ratings following their excellent effort:

15. Hugo Keenan – 7.5
Zero games for Leinster this season due to injury but he remains a permanent name on the Andy Farrell teamsheet and he showed why with his defensive dependability, particularly under the high ball and policing territory. Did take some punishment when fairly levelled in possession by Makazole Mapimpi, with a penalty concession resulting at the ruck. Trucked on, though, to great effect.

14. Robert Baloucoune – 8
The powerful 25-year-old had always suggested at club level he had the potential to become a regular Test selection and his third cap provided convincing evidence he is the real deal. Dusted himself down after an early welcome from Jesse Kriel, his awareness was clear to see when tidily snuffing out the danger when South Africa twice kicked ahead on penalty advantage just before the break.

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13. Garry Ringrose – 7.5
Has been in the form of his career this year and he set the tone early when his catch of a Conor Murray kick invited the infringement that led to the opening points. Continued on in that productive manner and capably stepped into the inside centre role following the early exit of Stuart McCloskey with the rookie Jimmy O’Brien alongside.

12. Stuart McCloskey – 7.5
Friday’s emergency inclusion due Robbie Henshaw’s pesky hamstring, his seventh cap was sadly short-lived due to a 27th-arm injury that was the legacy of the final tackle in the contribution that had him listed as his team’s top tackler at that juncture. Had taken the plaudits along with Caelan Doris for the 15th-minute turnover penalty that ended a Jasper Wiese gallop. Was positive on the other side of the ball as well. An excellent cameo.

11. Mack Hansen – 8
A consummate professional who was forensically precise in everything he did. Even when he was tipped over illegally by the combined effort of Kolbe and Pieter-Steph du Toit, he ensured he landed without injury and he went on to play with great reward, excellently taking his second-half try and also exhibiting his defensive intelligence with one great read near the corner.

10. Johnny Sexton – 7.5
Friday’s schooling of Ciaran Frawley by the All Blacks XV was yet more evidence that Sexton continues to prove irreplaceable and it was only after further treatment on 78 minutes that he finally reluctantly gave way to Joe Carbery. Will be annoyed that he conceded a penalty for hands around the neck early on but he bounced back to lead his side intelligently, something encapsulated by the decision to go for the corner and a try at 6-6 when three easy kicked points were on offer.

9. Conor Murray – 7
The auspicious occasion of his 100th cap ended prematurely when he pulled something in his leg when lung-burstingly accelerating off lineout possession into the South African 22 on 35 minutes. Revelling in a rare start in recent times, it was his teasing kick that became the prompt for the game’s opening penalty points and he later demonstrated all his hard-earned experience when snaffling a penalty at the scrum off Jaden Hendrikse.

1. Andrew Porter – 7.5
Yet again demonstrated his immense engine even though, unlike numerous teammates, his best work was done without fanfare. He particularly enjoyed the 60th-minute scrum penalty win at a time when South Africa had drained their bench and were gunning for a comeback. Gave everything he had for the 68 minutes he was involved.

2. Dan Sheehan – 8
An excellent effort that was unfortunate not to come with the satisfaction of an opportunistic first-half try. He has teased his nuisance with an early blocked kick on the visiting out-half and he then repeated the dose on Willemse before kicking on sweetly with his right foot along the ground only knock-on when diving at the bobbling ball over the line. Lasted 64 exhausting minutes.

3. Tadhg Furlong – 6
Like Keenan, Fulong had been in hibernation with just one club appearance coming into this and there was a level of rustiness to his 40-minute contribution which was ended by the knock sustained when at the heart of the action near his own line.

4. Tadhg Beirne – 8
Began with a fluffed catch and had his face bloodied less than a quarter of the way through, but he hung tough and was a prime reason why Ireland were confident to unleash their early second-half power surge. Even managed a looping left-footed kick out of defence at one stage and followed it with a diligent kick chase. Played 64 minutes.

5. James Ryan – 8.5
Excellence personified. He was the engineer of the excellent Irish maul defence that was crucial to knotting up the South African attack and his doughty performance was seen in the closing moments of the first half, shrugging off a penalised no-arms tackle from Frans Malherbe and then stealing a lineout aimed at Eben Etzebeth. Huge tackle count throughout.

6. Peter O’Mahony – 8
The legend who typifies the lion-hearted spirit of this current Irish setup, his precision handling caught the eye and it was apt that he took the catch at the lineout that generated the van der Flier try. Stood up and was very much counted when it most mattered.

7. Josh van der Flier – 8.5
Collected a player of the year award the other week and he showed why here, rising to the challenge in a rumbustious collision and he rounded off his display with that all-important first try. So sure was he that he had perfectly grounded the ball that he immediately scarpered back to the halfway line while everyone else needed to see TMO footage to realise how brilliantly he had finished without going into touch.

8. Caelan Doris – 8
Continued to show value in keeping 2021 Lions starter Jack Conan on the bench. He was the Ireland forward that carried the most and his ability was exemplified by his alertness to pounce on the loose ball and pass it clear without going over the sideline to initiate the move for the second try.

By Liam Heagney, @RugbyPass

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