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Sunday 4 December 2016

Wilting Ireland run out of legs

Jamie Heaslip
Jamie Heaslip

South Africa hit back against Ireland at Ellis Park despite trailing for the majority of the match before ultimately winning 32-26 to tie the series.

Coming from 26-10 down at one stage the South Africans rallied in the last quarter when Ireland faded badly at altitude. It sets up a fascinating final rubber next week in Port Elizabeth.

In 2013 courtesy of a Rob Kearney length of the field try, Ireland famously led the mighty All Blacks by 22-7 points at half-time. Even with time almost up, Ireland were still in the lead, albeit by just one score.

As history beckoned for the fighting Irish, the unimaginable happened. A panicked Irish penalty allowed the Kiwis to somehow escape with a last minute Ryan Crotty try.

Devastated

The Irish who have never beaten the All Blacks were devastated, the chance for fame and history maybe gone for another generation of Irish players.

Talking to some of the All Blacks after that close shave I asked them what their inspirational captain Richie McCaw had said to them in those last desperate minutes.

It was simple enough, he said that "Ireland will give us one chance, we must be ready to take it".

Rugby at this level is being able to play out of your comfort zone and close out a game.

Twenty two unanswered second half points by a Springbok team that were on their knees at half-time perhaps tells a story deeper than what unfolded on the field.

It tells a story of changing self-belief, Ireland had it for 60 minutes and then possibly stopped believing.

On the other hand, like New Zealand in 2013, South Africa actually started to believe that they could pull back a deficit that looked almost impossible going into the last quarter, especially given that Ireland were by a street the better side up until then.

A couple of things didn't help Ireland's cause when calm and patience was required.

Ireland had just won the ball back in about the 73th minute, but then a penalty for crossing in the Irish midfield that didn't need to happen gave South Africa a chance to get a tangible field position for their last raid.

My old sporting cliché rang true again, "never give a sucker an even break".

Irish head coach Joe Schmidt's biggest task this week will be to take his team aside and tell them to try and forget about the loss but rather concentrate on the positives from the match of which there were plenty.

It is now a case of rebuilding the psychology of his side, and to reinforce that Ireland have a superior set-piece game and dominated for the majority of the game as the Springboks once again looked poor.

In the first half Ireland's rip and choke defence paid off in spades and in a repeat of last week's game the Springbok players lost or had the ball ripped away from them in contact.

Add in the fact that South Africa were again ill-disciplined at the ruck and on the ground saw Ireland easily weather the high altitude difficulties and cruise to a somewhat easy half-time lead.

So comfortably in charge that with such a one-sided lead you felt that if Ireland just managed to stay in charge for the ten minutes after half-time then there was no way the South Africans had the skills or the game-plan to pull back three scores while Ireland got none.

They must have learnt learnt from that 2013 loss to New Zealand. Understandably Ireland's legs began to tire so far above sea level and it was starting to show.

Like a Lion stalking the tiring wildebeest South Africa began to sense that the Irish defence was wilting.

South African coach Allister Coetzee, who was in serious doubt of retaining his job after a potential series loss to Ireland, finally did something right when made a couple of inspired changes especially introducing aggressive winger Ruan Combrinck who despite coming on as a replacement made such a difference that he was named Player of the Match.

Combrinck and replacement forward Warren Whitely gave South Africa the go-forward they needed as Ireland where being forced to defend wave after wave of Springbok attack.

Physically shattered the Irish couldn't hold out, and the match winning try was sadly fairly soft as the exhausted Irish had nothing more to give.

It was the All Blacks all over again, and heartbreak for a side that now must think, even subconsciously, that this was definitely a game they left behind.

Opportunity

On the positive side Ireland have the chance to put things right next Saturday, and to be honest they may not get a better opportunity.

South Africa has been so poor this series that many may question the quota system before the next World Cup, and regardless it will be 12 years before the Irish get another bite at the cherry.

There is a a slight momentum swing toward the home sides in situations like these, simply because their confidence will be up a notch and their coach may now make changes that could strengthen his side.

They will also have the crowd back on their side after the audible boos were turned into cheers by full-time in Ellis Park.

Ireland have a few fresh players to come into contention and Schmidt will obviously select his strongest side for the final game.

Sadly it may mean there will not be a start for some of Connacht's stars, they may have to wait as Schmidt will still go after a historical series win in South Africa.

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