By Mark Jones
South Africa 28, Ireland 18
South Africa may have opened its hearts and minds to a new era of tolerance off the sporting pitch, but its rugby p[layers still have a strong stubborn Afrikaaner streak. Level at 18-18 with Ireland in last Sunday’s high-class international at Lansdowne Road, you might have expected South Africa to be satisfied with a draw — not a chance. A penalty and a try in injury time and the former world champions snatched victory by 28-18.
If there was an element of frustration for the Irish, who performed superbly for much of the second half, a draw was probably the most they could squeezed out of the game. Although the home team held the edge behind the scrum, where Brian O’Driscoll and Denis Hickie were outstanding, it was the South African forwards who muscled out the result.
Their high tempo possession style might not be too attractive to watch, but it proved to be highly effective as South Africa jumped into an early 13-0 lead. At that stage, Ireland were in danger of being pummeled by a more powerful opposition. However, they responded with the sort of creative back play that has been absent for so long.
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First, Hickie finished off a move in which center Rob Henderson had a major role, and than after the interval, wing Tyrone Howe was on the end of a spectacular move that involved both O’Driscoll and Hickie. Those tries were the highlights of a good Irish display, yet as captain Keith Wood admitted, it wasn’t quite good enough.
"We wanted to win, that was our stated objective and we failed," he said. "Maybe that’s the gauge, so how far are we away from where we want to be? Not very far."
Coach Warren Gatland accepted that his team hadn’t been composed enough in those closing minutes.
"These are the sort of games we need to be playing on a regular basis," he said. "The South Africans are unbelievably physical and our dressing room looked like a battlefield and we have yet to come up to their level."
Given that Ireland haven’t beaten South Africa since 1965, this was still a promising Irish display. Both Eric Miller and Henderson justified their recalls, and Hickie showed a return to his best form. The low points came at half-back, where Ronan O’Gara was a disappointment before he was replaced by David Humphreys. Equally, scrum-half Peter Stringer struggled especially during the first half.
Following Howe’s brilliant try, which brought Ireland level, there was a even a moment when it looked as if Ireland could pull off a historic victory. However, South Africa increased the pressure with a penalty from Braam van Straaten, and in injury time the winners’ best player, Andre Venter, powered over for a try.
"I’m disappointed with the result but proud of the players," Gatland said. "We’re trying to play to a certain style and this is quite encouraging."
Another defeat, but it’s not long since South Africa were 25 points better than Ireland. At least, it seems as if those bad old days are over.
Ireland: G. Dempsey; D. Hickie, B. O’Driscoll, R. Henderson, T. Howe; R. O’Gara, P. Stringer; P. Clohessy, K. Wood, J. Hayes, G. Longwell, M. O’Kelly, E. Miller, K. Dawson, A. Foley. Subs: D. Humphreys for O’Gara, 63 mins.; A. Ward for Miller, 71 mins.; J. Fitzpatrick for Hayes, 78 mins.; S. Horgan for Dempsey, 83 mins.