The immediate response on the final whistle at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was one of acute disappointment given Ireland finished this gruelling series camped on the South African line after a 19-phase onslaught in search of what could have been a winning score and a series clincher. It was that tight.
If Joe Schmidt was told that in advance of this expedition, given the massive injury list accumulated over the last few months, I’m sure he would have taken it. Incredibly just six points separated the teams for a third consecutive Saturday, an aggregate score of 72-66 a clear indicator of the heroics delivered over the last few weeks by the entire squad.
Even the South African public stood at the final whistle to applaud an Irish effort that came within inches of an historic series win. Yet again controversy reigned as it did after the sending off of CJ Stander in Cape Town when South African full-back Willie Le Roux should, in my opinion, have also seen red for a reckless challenge on his opposite number, Tiernan O’Halloran, the effects of which eventually forced the Connacht man off at half time with suspected broken ribs.
Le Roux was cited and received a one week ban for his actions but that is of no consolation to O’Halloran or Ireland. The sanction, the same as that handed out to Stander by the same commissioner Terry Willis, suggests he too felt a red card should have been issued by New Zealand referee Glen Jackson.
The lack of consistency in dealing with incidences of this nature is, all too often, having a material impact on big games. After the Stander incident, I bemoaned how the outcome of the action rather than the action itself appears to influence the colour of the card issued. That could ultimately influence players to exaggerate the extent of their injury and that is the last thing rugby needs right now.
Despite being dominated for long tracts of the second-half, this decider was there for the taking and ultimately came down, as test matches so often do, to missed opportunities. Luke Marshall, who mixed some inspirational moments with poor handling and decision-making, will rue not passing earlier to Keith Earls after a superb break in the first-half. That delay resulted in him forcing the pass which drifted forward with the try line beckoning.
Likewise, despite being under all kinds of pressure after the break, Paddy Jackson saw his potential, try-scoring cut out pass also to Earls, plucked spectacularly from the air by the smallest man on the field in Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk.
De Klerk also effected the tackle on Earls at the death that saved the game for the hosts. That skill execution under pressure, a direct consequence of inexperience at this level, ultimately cost Ireland dearly. Schmidt has worked wonders with this depleted squad and came within a whisker of delivering Ireland’s greatest achievement on a Southern Hemisphere tour. That said he could have done with introducing the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Ultan Dillane, Eoin Reddan and Sean Cronin off the bench earlier than the 68th minute to aid a flagging Irish effort entering the final quarter. All impressed, with Cronin’s electric pace once again having a big impact.
South Africa improved with every outing in this series with their scrum eventually pummelling Ireland, their line speed in defence unrecognisable from the opening game and the power of their explosive ball carriers forcing Ireland into a concession of penalties that ultimately swung this game their way.
The fact Ireland went so close, despite losing two of their most influential backs in this series in Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw, merits huge credit in a season that has taken a horrendous physical toll. It is a measure of just how attritional the international game has become that only six of Ireland’s starting side from the key pool game against France at the World Cup eight months ago made it to this series decider.
The strength in depth of rugby in Ireland has never been so severely tested with nine of that starting side at the Millennium Stadium - Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Henshaw, Dave and Rob Kearney along with Tommy Bowe all injury victims.
Add in Payne who also missed that pool decider, Luke Fitzgerald and Nathan White who started that game on the bench along with Simon Zebo and you get a clearer picture of challenge facing Schmidt coming into this contest in Port Elizabeth.
The full benefit of this tour may not be seen for some time but, with a number of the injured bodies back in harness by the start of next season, one wonders if the fruits of their labours could yet be rewarded with a first ever win over New Zealand come next November.
One also hopes that it will convince Schmidt he is developing a body of men worth sticking with all the way through to the next World Cup in Japan in 2019. We await with interest the outcome of his contract negotiations over the next few weeks.
There has been so many positives to emerge from this tour, not least the consistency of performance delivered by Paddy Jackson over the course of the three tests. Offered the chance to transfer his impressive provincial form into the international arena, he excelled to the point he is now ready to not only back up Johnny Sexton but make him fight for the jersey.
Jackson aside, the switch of Payne to full back was a resounding success, while Henshaw proved conclusively he is now equally comfortable playing at outside centre. That offers Schmidt a multiplicity of selection options when he has a full deck to pick from. Marshall had a bit of a mixed bag on Saturday but was outstanding in the opening day victory in Newlands with his accomplished kicking game an added plus.
Tadhg Furlong stepped up to the mark at Ellis Park and now needs to force his way in as a regular starter for Leinster while Jordi Murphy too made a big impression. Despite taking that heavy knock in the 11th minute, O’Halloran looked very comfortable and confident on the ball and it was very unfortunate that the Le Roux’s incident robbed him of the chance to make an even bigger impression.
Of the middle order group Iain Henderson, Jack McGrath and Rhys Ruddock were outstanding and Devin Toner had a magnificent tour, losing nothing in his titanic battles against Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Loud de Yager.
Apart altogether from the excellence of his play, Rory Best came of age as an Ireland captain. He was inspirational in so many ways and did a superb job in bringing this diverse squad together with all of the fledgling tourist integrated seamlessly.
The sight of a South African team doing a lap of honour to a standing ovation from the home crowd after beating Ireland, shows the magnitude of the challenge this understrength Irish side put up to the hosts. A decade ago such victories would have been taken for granted by a Springbok side.
In the face of adversity the tourists made people sit up and take notice with the positives far outweighing the hurt and anguish from a series that Ireland should have put to bed in Johannesburg when leading by 16 points going into the final quarter.
Live and learn.
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