Perhaps it was embarrassment that prompted the powers that be to break with the norm and not announce the matchday attendance over the new stadium’s booming public address system. Even if the 38,000 figure mentioned by Donncha O’Callaghan post-match is not accurate, the swathes of empty seats in the 51,000-plus arena would confirm the strong possibility that there were red faces all round at headquarters following a bruising week of conflict and climb-downs in the ticket pricing and allocation row.
There will be no embarrassment for head coach Declan Kidney following this 23-21 defeat to South Africa, rather some serious thinking after a lacklustre performance that had players and coaches alike scratching their heads.
Kidney’s Springbok counterpart, Peter de Villiers, was surprised at the ease at which his pack had dominated proceedings to build the platform for a 13-6 half-time lead, an advantage which stretched to 23-9 after 63 minutes.
“We controlled the forwards and we really controlled the set-pieces,” de Villiers said.
“We missed one line-out but after that we were so in control, winning every ball. We knew that we could drive it whenever we wanted to. The scrums were not that bad but we were very surprised we were in such control, especially in first phase. We came over here and knew that Ireland can be very dominant there but we worked hard and everybody understood their role.”
And on a rainy night when ball handling was difficult in the extreme and the error count accordingly high, those facets set out by de Villiers were only emphasised.
It was not until the gradual introduction of second-half substitutes Tom Court, for the injured Tony Buckley at tighthead prop, Donnacha Ryan for Mick O’Driscoll in the second row and, most impressively, the half-backs Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara for Eoin Reddan and Jonny Sexton, that Ireland got any grip on the game.
Fly-half O’Gara, winning his 100th cap, was the 66th-minute substitution that gave the Boks most to think about. He got quick ball from Stringer and sparked a two-try rally, the first with a perfectly judged cross-field kick to the corner for Tommy Bowe. Only his failed conversion of Rob Kearney’s try – the ball hitting an upright – denied Ireland what would have been a barely deserved draw.
“If you look at the individual performances of the guys who came onto the field, the one substitution that really went against us was when O’Gara came on,” de Villiers said. “He took the game to us and really caused some havoc in those last few minutes.
“If they didn’t make that substitution we would have been fine because we knew exactly what they were doing at that moment.”
Yet, ultimately, the damage had been done long before. The Irish lineout badly missed the leadership of Paul O’Connell, while the throwing of Rory Best was so awry it was difficult to fathom why replacement hooker Sean Cronin was not given a go off the bench.
The key question is whether this was a bad day at the office or something fundamentally more concerning for the Irish team. For Sexton, it would probably be the former, although O’Gara is undoubtedly the No.10 in form right now, but his Leinster team-mate and scrum-half Reddan telegraphed an 18th-minute pass in his efforts to retrieve a misfiring lineout and only teed up Juan Smith for a 60-metre intercept try, while Stringer’s quick ball made such a difference to Ireland’s tempo that the Munster man deserves a continued run in the number nine shirt on his current form.
There must be deep concern about the lineout, however, emphasised by South African delight that O’Connell was not around to harass Matfield and Bakkies Botha and Ryan’s replacement of Mick O’Driscoll may well be the short-term fix until the raw talent of the giant Devin Toner can be honed to Test standard.
“We all know the class Paul O’Connell’s got and (his absence) definitely made it easier for myself,” Matfield said. “He’s a star player and any time you lose a guy like that it must be tough. He knows how to run the line outs and that definitely made it easier so it was nice not to see him there.”
So what are the positives Ireland can take into next week’s Test with Samoa? Kidney’s team will definitely be looking to start their second match at the Aviva in the manner they finished the first and after consecutive defeats to Scotland, the Barbarians, New Zealand, the New Zealand Maori, Australia and now the Springboks, the Samoans provide a tough but attainable opportunity to break the run of defeats.
Kidney on Saturday night was as measured as ever, claiming the Irish defence held firm in terms of line breaks, one of the two tries was an intercept and the scrum held up “reasonably well” considering the lack of experience in his first choice of props Cian Healy and Tony Buckley.
When O’Callaghan was asked to pinpoint the positives from Saturday’s defeat, the lock was refreshingly candid.
“When you play it’s hard to tell. I spend half my time with my head between asses pushing and dragging. We’ll look at the video and see the things to go forward,” O’Callaghan said.
“I know from the players’ side that we want to play better and improve.
“They are near the end of their season and we knew we had to make (the Aviva) a horrible place. That’s the disappointing thing – the first game in the Aviva, you want to set a standard there, you want to make it a bit of a fortress and you’re embarrassed that you came up short on that front.”
Previewing a week of hard work on the training ground, Kidney said: “Ninety percent of it is in our own control to fix.”
Rebuilding the players’ self-belief after such a disappointing outing, however, will require some additional endeavour.
IRELAND: R Kearney, T Bowe, B. O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald, J Sexton, E Reddan, C Healy, R Best, T Buckley, D O’Callaghan, M. O’Driscoll, S Ferris, D. Wallace, J Heaslip.
Replacements: K Earls for Kearney (75), R O’Gara for Sexton (66), P Stringer for Reddan (66), T Court for Buckley (51), D Ryan for M. O’Driscoll (63).
SOUTH AFRICA: G Aplon, B Basson, Z Kirchner, J de Villiers, B Habana, M. Steyn, R Pienaar, T Mtawarira, B du Plessis, J du Plessis, B Botha, V Matfield, D Stegmann, J Smith, P Spies.
Replacements: A Jacobs for de Villiers (67), P Lambie for M. Steyn (61), CJ van der Linde for J. du Plessis (71), F van der Merwe for Botha (71), K Daniel for Stegmann (66).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).