They cooked their braais on the grills outside Bloemfontein's Vodacom Park last night, and you feared it was Ireland's Test credibility that was going up in smoke.
Digesting the lessons of this defeat against a Springbok side without five world class players due to injury will take some doing. Whether Ireland can swallow sufficiently hard and bounce back for next week's match in Cape Town remains to be seen.
Here, surely, had been a gift-wrapped opportunity for Brian O'Driscoll and his side not only to win on South African soil for the first time, but also to climb a little closer to the summit of the world game. They may yet level the two-match series but that may seem akin to failure when they recall the heady heights of their victory over the world champions, England, at Twickenham this year.
The Springboks looked there to be taken. Injuries had wrecked their build-up and throughout the first half they looked what they were - a collection of individuals with little experience of Test rugby and no cohesion. It was a technically inept Test for long periods. Much of the play was naïve and it was surprising that Ireland could not subdue South Africa's young side. Where the Springboks were superior was in their scrambling defence, which Ireland could not match wheneverholes were exposed in their own rearguard.
Ireland were shaken by the early loss through injury of centre Gordon D'Arcy. Yet O'Driscoll looked dangerous and up for the task, sliding through a gap at full throttle to make a simple run-in try for Shane Horgan after a quarter of an hour.
Yet still there was little of the purpose, control and cohesion which they showed in the Six Nations' Championship, and the air hung heavy with desperation and fear. Indeed neither side could conquer the fear of losing sufficiently to seize a winning opportunity.
Or at least, not until South Africa raised their game after half-time. It was 11-11 at the interval, the lock Bakkies Botha having stormed through from the Irish 22-metre line for the opening try after only three minutes. The rest of the half was a stumbling, stuttering affair of little appeal for the 30,000 crowd, with Ronan O'Gara and Gaffie du Toit both kicking a brace of penalty goals.
Ireland did regain the lead four minutes after half-time when O'Gara dropped a snap goal. But from there on it was the South Africans who raised a head of steam. It was enough to win them the match.
The Springbok No 8 Jacques Cronje snatched a loose ball close to the Irish line and when the ball was recycled, the centre Wayne Julies out-paced O'Gara to the line. Worse was to come six minutes later when the Irish hooker Shane Byrne, normally so secure, hurled a line-out ball far too high for Paul O'Connell and straight into the hands of the outstandingBotha, who plunged over for his second try from a metre out. Du Toit missed both conversions but the Springboks were on a roll and suddenly filled with belief.
O'Gara made it 21-17 with a penalty but there was no coming back from South Africa's last try. The Irish pack scattered to the four winds at a five metre scrum and the flanker Pedrie Wannenburg got the touchdown despite appearing to lose control of the ball. Du Toit converted and South Africa were out of sight at 28-17. The full-back's late penalty merely enhanced Ireland's gloom.
Ireland will reflect upon an opportunity squandered. They failed completely to capitalise upon South Africa's disorganisation and were unable to raise any sustained levels of pressure. Their game was riddled with errors and poor decision making. They were careless in their execution of their set plays and too many of their team had palpably bad days at the office.
For a long time, South Africa were not much better, but they weathered their poor spells and came through in the end. By the finish, the former Leicester fly-half Jaco van der Westhuyzen was looking a danger whenever he attacked the Irish three-quarter line. The flanker Schalk Burger was sin-binned late on but by then the game was won.
For Ireland, as O'Driscoll said afterwards, much work lies ahead. "We thought we had the winning of it at half-time but our discipline let us down and we made too many silly unforced errors and conceded turnovers," he said. "It was a pretty disappointing display."
South Africa 31 Ireland 17
Tries: Botha 2, Julies, Try: Horgan
Con: Du Toit Pens: O'Gara 3
Pens: Du Toit 3 Drop goal: O'Gara
Half-time: 11-11 Attendance: 30,000
Ireland: G Dempsey (Leinster); S Horgan (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), G Murphy (Leicester); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); R Corrigan (Leinster), S Byrne (Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli), D Wallace (Munster), A Foley (Munster). Replacements: K Maggs (Bath) for D'Arcy, 33; M Horan (Munster) for Corrigan, 64; F Sheahan (Munster)for Byrne, 64; A Quinlan (Leinster) for Wallace, 76.
South Africa: G du Toit (Stormers); B Paulse (Stormers), M Joubert (Stormers), W Julies (Stormers), H Mentz (Sharks); J van der Westhuyzen (NEC, Japan), F du Preez (Bulls); O du Randt (Cats), J Smit (capt, Sharks), E Andrews (Stormers), B Botha (Bulls), V Matfield (Bulls), S Burger (Stormers), P Wannenburg (Bulls), J Cronje (Cats). Replacements: CJ van der Linde (Cats) for Andrews, 58; G Britz (Cats) for Cronje, 65; Q Davids (Stormers) for Botha, 72.Reuse content