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Schmidt's Ireland heroes can kick on from incredible win against South Africa

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Time to believe in this Ireland team. No more worried talk about injuries or feting of big-name opponents, under Joe Schmidt the Six Nations champions have the capacity to beat anyone.

Paul O'Connell and his men ended Saturday's Test under the posts, just like they did at the end of last year's defeat to New Zealand. This time, the try was immaterial even if it prevented the hosts from reaching the dizzy heights of third on the IRB rankings table.

Almost 12 months on from that harrowing endgame, the hosts had done more than enough to see it home. The circumstances were similar and, as Johnny Sexton lined up his 70th-minute penalty to make it 19-10 after receiving treatment, it was hard not to think back to the similar moment against New Zealand.

This time, the out-half nailed it. Four minutes later, he played his part in a sublime Tommy Bowe try and when the Springboks came late it was only in search of consolation through JP Pietersen.

That they beat South Africa and have so much to work on is the real cause for optimism. There was a lot good about Ireland's performance on Saturday, but it was far from perfect.

"It's probably a benchmark result for us," Schmidt said as he refused to get carried away. "We are performance-driven and I think our performance at times was superhuman; the amount of times guys had to get up and make repeated tackles against such big strong carriers.

"At the same time I think next week could be entirely different. It's hard to say one Test will influence another. If you look back four weeks ago, South Africa were superb against the All Blacks.

"Past performance guarantees nothing in the future, all Test players understand that. The only thing that guarantees performance is the best preparation you can put yourself through and then hopefully that performance will be good enough."

If the squad and management weren't getting too far ahead of themselves, the fans who packed Lansdowne Road out for an intense and absorbing Test could start to dream big.

The World Cup is 10 months away and Ireland have downed one of the legitimate favourites to win it.

It helped that the Springboks turned up as if expecting to win comfortably and that their scrum-half Francois Hougaard played as if he'd won a competition to wear the dark green No 9 shirt for a day. Despite talking up this tour as the beginning of their World Cup, they refused to play smart rugby and build a score as their captain Jean de Villiers and his accomplice Victor Matfield turned down shots at goal three times.

De Villiers later argued that they had gotten over the line at attempt No 3, but they never managed to get themselves in front, the position from which they strangled Ireland two years ago.

Instead, they made bad decisions and poor mistakes against a disciplined Ireland side whose commitment to the cause was frenzied.

Sexton gave them a 6-3 lead at half-time and, after absorbing plenty of pressure, Rhys Ruddock crashed over in the opening minutes of the second half to extend that lead. They lost Chris Henry to a virus on the morning of the game, but Ruddock stepped in and stepped up. Robbie Henshaw was physically dominant alongside Jared Payne in the centre, while Peter O'Mahony and Jack McGrath were menaces on the deck. New faces came in, but they are held to the same standards. "I think one of the most satisfying things is that players who come in fresh, I don't really need to talk to them about the expectation and nor do the other players," Schmidt said.

"They follow the lead of the other players who are driven, so the environment self-operates to a degree and that certainly makes the actual coaching, not driving people, but you can actually try to coach people because they're driving themselves and that's a massive thing for us."

While the close-quarter exchanges were brutal, Ireland's ace was their half-back pairing who controlled the game far better than their opposite numbers. Sexton was outstanding in every facet of the game including defence, kicking brilliantly and breaking selectively when it was on. Alongside him, Conor Murray combined brawn with brains in another impressive outing.

The coach's touch was everywhere, from the clever tactic of not engaging the maul and sending McGrath around the side, to the brilliantly executed set-play for Bowe's try and the other starter plays that opened the Boks up when the game was closing in.

Having soaked up plenty of pressure in the first half through a huge defensive work rate, the noose began to tighten on Ireland in the third quarter as Heyneke Meyer sent on his big hitters from the bench and Marcell Coetzee mimicked Ruddock's try as the pack's attempt at sacking the South African maul failed.

Ireland looked in trouble, but somehow managed to wrest momentum back their way thanks, in part, to a brilliant steal from Richardt Strauss just as the tanks began to roll. Instead, Sexton stretched Ireland's lead out to six as Strauss's cousin, Adriaan, was sent to the sin-bin for tackling Rob Kearney in the air. In isolation, it was harsh; but referee Romain Poite said the punishment was for cumulative offences and, after living on the edge for much of the evening, the Boks had no complaints.

Ireland went for the jugular. Sexton kicked a penalty, before carrying hard in-field minutes later. Bryan Habana drifted off his wing only for Murray to prod the ball into the hole he'd left where Bowe touched down.

The world's No 2 team were stunned having been out-thought by a team who had struggled in the set-piece, had less possession and territory and still come out on top to delight of the noisy home crowd. "I've no doubt that teams will work us out a bit and put pressure on us. You've got to keep evolving," Schmidt said. "That's a challenge for the coaching group, to help the players - who drive the environment - to do that.

"It was a bit of static, it didn't have the free-flow of the All Blacks game, conditions were different. I was delighted with the way they went out. They earned the support. It was great to see the cheering, particularly when lads were coming off towards the end. They merited it. They're going to have to work harder still to merit it again, because the job's not going to get any easier."

They'll rest bodies against Georgia and go again against Australia having raised their own expectations.

The sweep is on.

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