Ireland ended the Grand Slam year on a high as the Northern Hemisphere champions turned over the World Cup and Tri-Nations winners at Croke Park last Saturday.
And victory was extra sweet for Brian O’Driscoll and eight Irish teammates as they gained revenge for their Lions humiliation in South Africa last summer into the bargain.
Rookie out-half Jonathan Sexton kicked all 15 Irish points, three of them from unanswered second half penalties, as Ireland overcame a 10-6 halftime deficit to record a famous win.
The victory ensured an unbeaten 2009 campaign for the home side as they made it 11 straights game without defeat -- a new Irish record -- and remained unbeaten in the Guinness Autumn Series.
Ireland had gone behind to an early try from the unpopular Schalk Burger, the man who gouged Luke Fitzgerald on the Lions tour, and South Africa out-half Morne Steyne did manage a conversion and a penalty but the day was all about the boys in green.
Beating the World Cup winners -- their third straight win over South Africa in Dublin -- may have been a fitting finale to an incredible year, but Irish team boss Declan Kidney refused to let his feet leave the ground.
“Our coach Les Kiss has a habit of saying there is no such thing as perfection, only moments of perfection and he’s right,” said Kidney when asked if this was the perfect end to a perfect year on Saturday night.
“Today was a good day. We set out to play against the Tri-Nations teams as often as we can and we do learn more about ourselves in a game as tight as this one but we will not get carried away.
“We had home advantage, the ball came off our post when we were five points up and we didn’t score a try today so there is plenty to work on out there.
“That said, we would never let any of that spoil a good night and the players deserve to have a good night after that win.
“We have finished the autumn series with a victory that will build confidence, and we can look forward to February and the start of the Six Nations.”
Ireland fans will definitely look to the spring now with real confidence as they await the defense of that Grand Slam crown.
One of the key factors behind the new spring in their step following this win against the Southern Hemisphere kingpins was the manner in which Sexton took his big chance.
There was a lovely moment when Sexton scored his fifth and decisive penalty late on and the cameras caught Ronan O’Gara, warming up behind the Canal End goal, with a big smile on his face.
Kidney and captain O’Driscoll were just as happy for the Leinster youngster, who now offers real competition to the stalwart O’Gara going into the championship.
“It is fantastic that we now have two top quality number 10s putting pressure on each other and the more we can get of that in every position the better we will be as a squad,” said O’Driscoll after Sexton kicked all 15 Ireland points.
“Jonathan was very solid today, he kept the scoreboard ticking over for us and he controlled things very well. We have competition now and it’s great because it means the squad will not remain stagnant.
“We can continue to get better and put pressure on one another and that is good for Irish rugby.”
The view from the coach’s corner was just as pragmatic.
“We might have won by more with Rog playing!” laughed Kidney as he proved he doesn’t take these things too seriously.
“You have to make calls coming into games like this, and 12 months ago we said we would develop the squad. That means a lot of ups and downs along the way but the blessing now is that we have an up and coming number 10 but we also have a world class out-half at our disposal in Rog.
“I am just as delighted with Cian Healy’s effort today because our front row never seems to get the credit they deserve. Likewise Sean O’Brien came in for the second half and it is good that players are coming through like that.”
As optimism grows off the field, so Kidney and O’Driscoll were anxious to keep feet on the ground inside the Ireland camp.
“We won’t lose the run of ourselves,” said O’Driscoll as the Autumn Series ended with two wins and a draw against South Africa, Fiji and Australian respectively.
“This was a one off game and we treated it as such today, but what it has done is renewed our focus and realization that we have the ability to play through the 80 minutes.
“We proved that with the late draw against Australia. We know the game is not dead until the final kick and that we proved it again today as we did against Australia is pleasing.
“We were in a bit of a dark place this time last year but there was a lot of soul searching, a lot of honesty and the unbeaten calendar year is a huge credit to the players and the management.”
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 P. Wallace 34 mins, S. O’Brien for Ferris 40 mins. Subs Not Used: S. Cronin, T. Buckley, L. Cullen, P. Stringer, R. O’Gara.
South Africa: Z. Kirchner; J.P. Pietersen, J. Fourie, W. Olivier, B. Habana; M. Steyn, F. du Preez; T. Mtawarira, J. Smit (capt.), B.J. Botha; A. Bekker , V. Matfield; H. Brussow, S. Burger, D. Rossouw. Replacements: B. du Plessis for B.J. Botha 48 mins, D. Potgieter for Bekker 69 mins, R. Pienaar for Steyn 61 mins, J. de Villiers for Olivier 65 mins.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).
Sexton Breaks Fingers
LEINSTER were left to count the cost of Jonathan Sexton’s latest heroics after his near faultless display in the win over South Africa came with a price.
The Blues out-half faces a month on the sidelines after breaking two fingers as he scored all Ireland’s points in their 15-10 win over the world champions.
Sexton was due to get the results of a scan on Wednesday at the latest, but Leinster sources confirmed that he is likely to miss the home and away Heineken Cup clashes with the Llanelli Scarlets in December.
His loss will be a blow to the European Cup champions, with fellow Leinster star Gordon D’Arcy quick to praise Sexton’s efforts against the Springboks on only his second Irish outing.
“Jon is a brilliant striker of the ball, very natural,” said Ireland and Leinster centre D’Arcy. “It’s a mark of a good player that when the pressure comes on he wants the ball.
“He always wants it -- it was the same during the Heineken Cup semi-finals and final last season. When those pressure kicks are on or when he’s go for that extras 10 yards, he doesn’t flinch at all.”
Victory on Saturday was sweet for Heaslip and his eight fellow Irish Lions after their disappointments in South Africa last summer.
“I was very confident that with the squad we have and the mentality we’ve generated over the past year that we could win,” said Heaslip afterwards.
In other rugby news, the International Rugby Board are unlikely to charge Irish forward Jamie Heaslip with a gouging offense against South Africa.
The South Africans had asked the citing commissioner to investigate claims that Heaslip made contact with the eye area of Heinrich Brüssow during the first half of Ireland’s win.
Reports on RTE on Monday night, however, claimed that the commissioner had already decided that the incident did not merit any further investigation.
And Declan Kidney was named Coach of the Year in the International Rugby Board’s annual awards for 2009, but his captain Brian O’Driscoll lost out to New Zealand’s Richie McCaw in the Player of the Year category.
Tri-Nations winners South Africa were named Team of the Year ahead of Ireland’s Grand Slam heroes.