Ireland's long season came to a shuddering halt in Cape Town yesterday, leaving Eddie O'Sullivan and his men at an all-time low.
Defeat in the Second Test at Newlands means Ireland head for home tonight still never having beaten the Springboks on South African soil. All the high hopes held by this Irish squad when they set out for South Africa as Triple Crown winners and conquerors of England have evaporated in the space of seven days.
There must be major questions asked, not only about how good this Irish squad really iare, but about this trip in general.
Some things went on during Ireland's time in the Republic which smacked of unprofessional preparation. The decision to base the squad in Cape Town and fly up to altitude at Bloemfontein for the First Test backfired badly. Then, before yesterday's match, it was revealed that the Irish squad had not made a collective visit to the Cape Town stadium during the week's build-up, in order to familiarise themselves with their surroundings.
Those ought to have been simple decisions of policy. But Ireland appear to have got them badly wrong.
It was a disturbing sight to see Ireland outmuscled in the set scrums for the second Saturday in succession. The tighthead prop, John Hayes, was unable to lock his scrummage, which meant that his scrum-half, Peter Stringer, was always under heavy pressure from the Springbok back row. Even when Ireland did secure ball, it was often far too slow to be of any real use. The early loss of full-back Girvan Dempsey was a blow, but his replacement, Gavin Duffy, produced some heroics in defence to earn his corn.
O'Sullivan said after the match. "I cannot fault my boys today, they gave it their best shot. But perhaps we are not as far forward as we had thought we were.
"Certainly, I am very disappointed to be going home without at least a share of the Test series and a little bit of history as the first Irish side to win a Test match in South Africa. We thought we could do it, but it was not be."
O'Sullivan refused to make excuses for the crushing disappointment which this tour has represented. But he will doubtless ask questions of certain players who failed to lift themselves for the challenge. Whether that was because they are basically worn out after playing 18 Test matches inside 12 months will be a matter that is hotly debated. But you can be sure the inquest into this tour will be long and painful, and that it represents a major setback for Irish rugby.
Players like Hayes, Stringer and Ronan O'Gara may be under pressure for their places at home next season, after poor performances here. When the Ulster fly-half David Humphreys replaced O'Gara after 55 minutes the whole flavour of the game changed, with Ireland snatching a try which cut the South African lead to just six points. Humphreys made it with a beautiful chip to the South African line, where Brian O'Driscoll followed up to score, and the fly-half was a revelation to supporters of O'Gara.
But Ireland did not quite have the quality, class or composure to complete what would have been a sensational comeback. And as they struggled to assert any authority in the scrums it became a frustrating encounter, hard as Irish forwards like David Wallace, Shane Byrne, Anthony Foley and Paul O'Connell grafted.
Ireland dominated the first 20 minutes and led through Tyrone Howe's seventh minute try, brilliantly created by O'Driscoll's floated pass over the defence. O'Gara converted but South Africa hit back when their wing, Breyton Paulse, stood up O'Driscoll on a one-on-one and scuttled into the corner for a try. Goal-kicking dominated the rest of the half, the recalled full-back Percy Montgomery kicking two penalties and converting Paulse's try.
Montgomery had a fine game, but not as superb as that of the flanker Schalk Burger, who drove constantly into the heart of the Irish defence, with outstanding power and control.
The other home wing, Jacques Fourie, was worked over in the corner just before half-time and Montgomery's twice-taken conversion made it 20-7, until a snap O'Gara drop goal narrowed the lead at the break. Montgomery landed another penalty after 51 minutes and at 23-10, the game seemed to be South Africa's.
But Humphreys threatened to stand the Test on its head and the Springboks struggled, until Montgomery's final penalty with the last kick of the match sealed their win.
South Africa: P Montgomery (Dragons); B Paulse (Stormers), M Joubert (Stormers), W Julies (unatt), J Fourie (Lions); J van der Westhuyzen (Leicester), F du Preez (Bulls); O du Randt (Cats), J Smit (Sharks, capt), E Andrews (Stormers), Q Davids (Stormers), V Matfield (Bulls), S Burger (Stormers), P Wannenburg (Bulls), J Cronje Bulls). Replacements: B Russell (Sharks) for Fourie, 35; CJ van der Linde (Cats) for Andrews, 45; G Britz (Lions) for Wannenburg, 70; G Cronje (Bulls) for Davids, 71.
Ireland: G Dempsey (Leinster); S Horgan (Leicester), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), K Maggs (Bath), T Howe (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); R Corrigan (Munster), S Byrne (Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli), D Wallace (Munster), A Foley (Munster). Replacements: G Duffy (Harlequins) for Dempsey, 18; G Easterby (Rotherham) for Stringer, 55; D Humphreys (Ulster) for O'Gara, 55; M Horan (Munster) for Corrigan, 60; D O'Callaghan (Munster) for O'Kelly, 74; A Quinlan (Munster) for S Easterby, 75;
Referee: J Jutge (France).Reuse content