SOUTH AFRICA 19 IRELAND 13: Like a blow to the solar plexus, this was a punch that will take some getting over for Joe Schmidt and his Ireland team.
Yet much like that other great heartbreak of his tenure with the national team, the head coach is convinced this narrow series defeat to South Africa can be a significant building block to long-standing success.
This was another one that got away for Ireland, just like that November 2013 day when the All Blacks mugged Schmidt’s team at the death in the Aviva Stadium, denying Ireland an historic first victory over New Zealand.
The head coach had not experienced such professional hurt as that until Saturday night, when his team played with endeavour and ambition against the Springboks but repeatedly failed to land the killer blow and lost the chance to claim the series victory their performance deserved.
Injury-hit Ireland, at the end of their longest season, 17 Tests and 52 weeks after they went into pre-World Cup training camp last June 29, did not run out of steam as so often been the case, not least on their last three-Test series south of the Equator.
Unlike that 2012 tour to New Zealand, also at the conclusion of a World Cup season, when Declan Kidney’s side was crushed 60-0 having given their all the previous week, this was no Hamilton horror show.
This was a gutsy, committed performance from players hungry to finish the campaign on a high and add to the history they had made by winning in South Africa for the first time in the opening Test at Newlands in Cape Town.
They had come close in Johannesburg but faded badly at altitude in the closing quarter, allowing a rampant Springbok bench to first retrieve a 19-3 half-time deficit and then power to a 32-26 victory at Ellis Park.
That sent the series into a deciding Test and at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday night, Ireland — a shadow of the side even Schmidt would have imagined at the start of the season – proved they had the means to defeat a Southern Hemisphere giant in its own backyard.
Alas, they could not turn that dominance into a victory, poor execution and some excellent Springbok defence denying the tourists what the other 90 per cent of their effort so richly deserved.
“The last time I felt this similar disappointment was when we didn’t get the win against the All Blacks, when we had a similar lead. We came out and we won the Six Nations post that,” he said.
“I think players learn from that. They think ‘hang on a minute, we can actually foot it’.
“You know, to be written off to the degree that we were before the tour probably galvanised the group to a degree but it didn’t do their confidence a lot of good. Thankfully we had some good experience interspersed amongst the younger players and that allowed them to get a bit of confidence and I think they demonstrated that.
“The younger guys have made a great investment and the success will be made in the longer term but any investment you’ve got to be a little bit patient with and I’m not going to rip into a player who made a poor decision or didn’t execute something under Test match pressure because I want them to keep going, keep gaining confidence that they can cope in the arena that we’re in.
"To be honest, over these three Tests they should have learned that they can.”
A yellow card for Willie Le Roux after he should have seen red for poleaxing fellow full-back Tiernan O’Halloran in the air just 11 minutes in had allowed Ireland to capitalise on their strong start, Luke Marshall breaking the line to crash over five minutes later.
Leading 10-6 Marshall was over the gainline again to tremendous effect but butchered a two-on-one with Keith Earls staring at the try line by throwing a forward pass. Paddy Jackson had also missed a straightforward penalty kick and Ireland paid the price, conceding a try just before half-time when JP Pietersen collected an Elton Jantjies crossfield kick.
Trailing 13-10 at the break, Ireland would not be breached again, even when the stricken O’Halloran failed to return for the second half, leaving Earls at full-back.
Instead they succumbed to the mighty boot of wing Ruan Combrinck from inside the South African half, and another penalty from Jantjies.
There was no powerplay from the Boks this time, nor any ambition. All that belonged to Ireland only for poor decisions and Faf de Klerk to deny them.
Jackson had closed the gap to six with a penalty but his skip pass with three men outside him was first intercepted and then caught spectacularly by the diving scrum-half.
Replacement hooker Sean Croninmade a 40-metre break but perhaps should have delivered his pass sooner and twice as Ireland laid siege to the line in the final 10 minutes referee Glen Jackson intervened to rescue the Boks at the ruck after the phase count had past 20, de Klerk landing the game-ending tackle on Earls.
It did not win them a series but for Schmidt it bodes extremely well for Ireland’s future.
“If you’d said to me before we came here ‘look, there’ll be three six-point results and you’ll get one of them’ I would have grabbed it. I’m not sure the players would have, because they are so committed to trying to justify the support they get. Even coming out of our hotel the amount of support that you get really does encourage to keep going.
“I think they’ll learn from it. But you’ve got to get to the level of mastering very, very quickly in this environment because you don’t get too many windows to play Test rugby in a season and you’ve got to optimise every window you get.”
W Le Roux; R Combrinck, L Mapoe, D de Allende, JP Pietersen; E Jantjies, F de Klerk; T Mtawarira (S Kitshoff, 56), A Strauss – captain (B Mbonambi, 78), F Malherbe (J Redelinghuys, 56); E Etzebeth (F Mostert, 73), P-S du Toit; F Louw, S Kolisi (J Kriel, 60), W Whiteley.
Le Roux 11-21
Replacements not used:
R Paige, M Steyn, L Mvovo.
T O’Halloran (M Healy, 12-18, h-t); A Trimble, L Marshall (K Earls, 78), S Olding, K Earls (I Madigan, 72); P Jackson, C Murray (E Reddan, 69); J McGrath, R Best – captain (S Cronin, 72), M Ross (T Furlong, 50); I Henderson (U Dillane, 69), D Toner; CJ Stander (R Ruddock, 69), J Murphy, J Heaslip.
Replacement not used:
Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
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