Ireland’s hopes of humbling South Africa were picked apart in a one-sided second half of last night’s Guinness Series opener at Aviva Stadium.
Jonathan Sexton kicked four penalties as the Irish seized the 12-3 interval lead their dominance deserved, only for the Springboks to ignite their power game.
Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar crossed for the night’s only try in the 45th minute and Pat Lambie kicked 11 points as South Africa, who started as strong favourites, took control.
Just ten minutes into the game South Africa had conceded four cheap penalties, two of which were sent between the uprights by Sexton. Lambie and Sexton then exchanged penalties but Ireland were still playing most of the rugby, showing invention as they worked their way downfield.
South Africa’s composure crumbled as first Willem Alberts kneed Sexton in the ribs and then Pietersen was sent to the sin bin for using the shoulder while tackling Chris Henry early.
Gordon D’Arcy was thriving in the absence of Brian O’Driscoll as he welcomed the responsibility of being the senior figure in Ireland’s midfield. Repeatedly tested under the high ball, Tommy Bowe had impressed while lock Mike McCarthy and the Irish back row of Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony and Henry were making their presence felt.
Another three points from Sexton punished the Springboks’ indiscipline as Ireland opened a 12-3 lead they fully deserved.
Sexton missed his first penalty of the evening and the half finished with Springbok scrum-half Pienaar falling short from long range. South Africa came alive after the break and almost crossed through hooker Adriaan Strauss at a line-out drive in a passage of play that saw Heaslip sin-binned for standing offside.
Scenting blood, the Springboks went for the jugular and were rewarded when Pienaar darted over from close range, with Lambie converting.
The landscape of the match now look radically different with rejuvenated South Africa just two points behind. Captain Jean de Villiers bulldozed through D’Arcy and Keith Earls as referee Wayne Barnes offered Lambie another shot at goal which he took.
Sexton and Lambie both fell short with long-range kicks in a pressure-cooker final quarter of the match. South Africa won two penalties in quick succession, the second of which Lambie steered between the uprights. Ireland desperately chased the late score that would nudge them back into the lead, but were strangled out of the game.
Scorers: Ireland: Pens: Sexton 4. South Africa: Try: Pienaar; Cons: Lambie; Pens: Lambie 3.
Ireland: Zebo, Bowe, Earls, D’Arcy, Trimble, Sexton, Murray, Healy, Strauss, Ross, Ryan, McCarthy, O’Mahony, Henry, Heaslip. Subs: Cronin, Kilcoyne, Bent, O’Callaghan, Henderson, Reddan, O’Gara, McFadden. South Africa: Kirchner, Pietersen, Taute, de Villiers, Hougaard, Lambie, Pienaar, van der Linde, Strauss, J. du Plessis, Etzebeth, J. Kruger, Louw, Alberts, Vermeulen. Subs: Brits, H. van der Merwe, Cilliers, F. van der Merwe, Coetzee, M. Steyn, de Jongh, Mvovo. Referee: W Barnes (Eng). .