By Phil Rice
Ireland can take comfort from quality test performances but will regret not taking their chance of making history. Some will say the result was predictable but Ireland came so close to beating the Springboks in their own backyard.
Last Saturday the Boks defence spent a torrid final seven minutes repelling Irish attack after attack, as Ireland threw everything at them in the quest for the seven points that would bring them an historic win.
In truth if Ireland were to win this series they had their best opportunity the previous week when leading by 16 points with as many minutes on the clock. They physically ran out of steam and the Boks with their backs to the wall found the inspiration to score three late tries.
Last Saturday Ireland hoped with the removal of the altitude factor, which had been so debilitating the previous week, they could regain the initiative and gain a momentous victory. For much of the first half they had the better of play and South Africa were rather fortuitous to be leading 13-10 at the interval aided by a crucial try just before half time.
They were also fortunate to have 15 players on the field as Willie Le Roux was controversially yellow carded after 20 minutes when he upended Tiernan O’Halloran when going for a high ball. The consistency of refereeing has to be questioned in the light of CJ Stander’s dismissal in the first test.
While the two cases were not strictly comparable, the fact is that LeRoux had no chance of getting to the ball and he brought O’Halloran down on his neck, those two facts alone should have resulted in a red card.
Brave Ireland missed historic rugby opportunity
The period Le Roux was off the field proved fruitful for Ireland as Luke Marshall scored an excellent try after a sustained period of attacking play from Ireland.
Marshall has taken his opportunity well during this series but his handling does let him down on occasions. His centre partner Stuart Olding looks a complete footballer but his passing was very wayward at crucial times.
The second half was evenly contested and the Springboks managed to keep their noses in front, taking penalty opportunities when they arose. Ireland put them under ferocious pressure during a final assault as they strained every sinew to eek out a result but the Boks defence held firm.
This was a very depleted Irish touring party but its will be interesting to see how many of the established players who missed out on this tour, for a variety of reasons, are actually restored to the team when the international action resumes in the Autumn.
There are strong cases to be made for the retention of at least a few of the replacements on this tour. Notably at flyhalf where Paddy Jackson had an excellent series of matches showing real maturity and coolness under pressure. Tadgh Furlong has emerged as a quality tight head prop who held his own for the most part at scrum time and contributed well around the field.
Luke Marshall will also have high hopes of an international future. Joe Schmidt has said that he will disclose his intentions at the conclusion of this tour regarding an extension to his contract, when it runs out at the end of next season.
He has been offered positions by New Zealand Super Rugby teams and it is clearly his intention to return to his homeland at some stage in the future. He has presided over a successful period for Irish rugby however this season has been something of a transition for the national side.
The relative disappointment of the World Cup and ordinary performances in the Six Nations, followed up by this ultimately unsuccessful tour, may make Schmidt feel that it is time for a fresh man at the helm. The players clearly have appreciated his leadership and he will have the full backing of the IRFU to extend his contract. At times this season Ireland have lacked the attacking spark or initiative to break down defences.
Last Saturday they had 68 per cent possession and 73 per cent territory and yet were unable to make significant inroads into the Boks defence. They recycled interminably but seldom made a line break. That will be a worry for Schmidt going forward.
Robbie Henshaw was sorely missed at the weekend as were the interventions of Payne from fullback. Despite the welcome emergence of Connacht as a rugby force this season, there is still a relatively thin layer of international quality players in Irish rugby.
In general we punch above our weight given our limited resources. The coaches can take much credit for maximising the use of the talent available, but as this tour has underlined, when the big boys step up Ireland usually fall short in terms of the required standard.
Schmidt has said that it will not be rugby issues that will determine his decision but family reasons. He is a man of unquestionable integrity and his services will be sought by many teams at provincial and national level.
Undoubtedly he would love to manage his national team at some stage and in order to achieve that it might be opportune for him to return at the end of the coming season. The Irish players have certainly earned a summer break.
They have played two years of uninterrupted rugby and an unprecedented 17 international matches this season. Their progress hasn’t always been on an upward curve, but South Africa were mightily relieved to squeeze out a series win at the week-end.
It will be interesting to see how the Boks perform in the forthcoming Southern Hemisphere Championship.