Ireland v South Africa: Munster men fail to rescue party
Ireland 21 South Africa 23: Centre stage at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening was a helium-filled balloon to which was attached a banner bearing the words ‘Irish Rugby Is Home’.
Unfortunately 17,000 of those who might have attended the welcome back party stayed away, the empty seats they failed to fill an embarrassing reminder of the IRFU’s ticket pricing faux-pas.
Those who watched Ireland versus South Africa on television at home or in a pub missed an exciting final quarter, but nothing very uplifting prior to that.
What they will have witnessed in the latter stages of a hitherto drab affair was Munster’s Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara throwing down challenge to coach Declan Kidney and Leinster partners Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton who were preferred to them.
There is something about Munster and players from that province.
It seems that every time they are written off as being past their best, they conspire to make a nonsense of such suggestions.
True to form, Stringer and O’Gara have just played themselves right back into the international reckoning.
Hopefully the contribution of Ulster’s Tom Court will have been noted by Kidney, too.
Prior to his 50th minute introduction the Irish scrum had creaked for all of the first half and the first 10 minutes of the second. In other words, for the duration of Tony Buckley's shift.
His opponent, Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira turned and twisted Buckley, forcing him up out of the front row or causing him to drop his binding at the cost of a penalty.
Court’s arrival — and that of Munster lock Donncha Ryan — finally added some much-needed solidity against opponents whose domination of the two setpieces hitherto had made it impossible for Ireland to establish a base camp. Ireland were second best out of touch, too.
Even in horrific conditions South Africa’s line-out was practically flawless. Ireland’s lack of ball winners in the middle cost them dearly and left them dependent on Jamie Heslip and Stephen Ferris at the tail on a day when long throwing was a lottery. Springboks captain Victor Matfield was outstanding in the middle as was his second row partner Bakkies Botha, closer to the front of the line-out.
Bar one occasion they won clean, controlled ball out of touch.
Ireland flapped, tapped, knocked on and at times missed altogether. Only thrower Rory Best and his targets will know where the fault lay.
Such was South Africa’s domination there that finally Ireland were forced to concede that line kicking amounted to handing over possession.
Future statisticians will sit down to peruse the facts and figures of the return to Lansdowne Road.
They will see that the protagonists scored two tries and three penalties apiece.
But the Boks added the extras to each of their tries, leaving O’Gara’s cruel miss the difference between parity and defeat, the ball from his excellent conversion attempt having come back off a post.
What that stark statistic will not reveal is that Ireland gifted the Springboks the first of their brace when, from another messy line-out, under pressure Reddan’s attempted pass to Luke Fitzgerald was gobbled up by flanker Juan Smith who sprinted 70 yards to score after 18 minutes.
Nor will the statistics reveal anything about the brilliance of full-back Gio Aplon’s angled run or the quality of the pass fed back inside to him by centre Zane Kirchner.
Conversions of both by Morne Steyn and 20-year-old debutant Patrick Lambie who replaced him on the hour, coupled with three penalties from four attempts by the former whose miss was his first in 42 pots at goal in Test matches, left Ireland trailing 23-9 and seemingly dead and buried.
Ireland needed fresh inspiration to stop their opening night party from being ruined.
Up to then Sexton’s three out of four penalties had been their lot.
Until, with 15 minutes remaining, Stringer and O’Gara arrived to try and breathe life into the corpse.
They only just failed to do so, for finally there was creativity, with the invigorated forwards winning ball and those fresh half-backs moving it.
Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney were the beneficiaries of two kindly bounces which enabled them to apply the finishes which set up a great finale.
Too little too late, yes. But an awful lot, very late on, over which to ponder.