TWICE, the prize of a series win in South Africa was there for Ireland to take and twice they let it slip.
In Johannesburg last week, they wilted at altitude in the face of a Springbok power-surge and lost a 16-point lead in the final quarter, but there was no such excuse in the decider in Port Elizabeth where Ireland blew a glorious chance to make history.
Joe Schmidt’s side changed their game-plan and attacked throughout, owning 68pc of the ball and spending 73pc of the game in the South African half but only scored one try.
They missed two chances that have to be considered open goals at this level either side of half-time and finished the game with the ball in hand, pounding the Springbok line in futility.
There will be anger over referee Glen Jackson’s decision to award Willie le Roux a yellow card for his dangerous first-half challenge on Tiernan O’Halloran when it might have been red, but Ireland still had enough opportunities to win.
This has been a valuable tour for Schmidt who has used all of his players and has discovered a host of new players who can cope at this level, but that will be of little consolation on the long trip home.
Ireland began with positive intent, but they found themselves behind after six minutes after their good play was spoiled by a cheap penalty concession from Luke Marshall that allowed Elton Jantjies put his side on the board from the touch-line.
Ireland then conceded a penalty at scrum-time after Rory Best threw a crooked throw but the Lions out-half missed his long-distance effort.
The game should have turned on an 11th minute incident when O’Halloran, who had lookeds sharp went up for a Faf du Klerk box-kick and was up-ended by le Roux.
The Connacht full-back came down heavily on his neck and shoulder and referee Jackson had a long look before opting to issue a yellow card.
Based on the decision to issue CJ Stander with a red card in the opening Test, he was a lucky boy.
Still, Ireland were intent on making the most of their 10 minutes with an extra man despite losing O’Halloran for a period as he went for a head-check.
From clean line-out ball Stuart Olding made good yardage in midfield before Jack McGrath, Iain Henderson and CJ Stander carried hard as Ireland went through the phases.
Eventually, the white wall crumbles as Marshall got outside Jantjies to score.
Jackson converted, but followed it up with a poor miss after good work from Stander as O’Halloran returned and le Roux followed with the score at 7-3.
The Ulster out-half made no mistake minutes later when handed another opportunity by Warren Whiteley to extend his side’s lead.
The Springbok No 8 was having a mixed afternoon and he spoiled a good attack when he allowed Jordi Murphy dislodge the ball but the hosts drew closer with a Jantjies penalty minutes later as Jack McGrath was penalised for bringing down the scrum.
Ireland should have furthered their lead with a brilliant counter-attacking try when Iain Henderson stripped Faf du Klerk of possession and Jackson moved the ball wide to Marshall who broke free by stepping inside and then arced out before throwing a forward pass to Earls who simply had to stroll over if it had gone to hand.
Instead, they went in behind at half-time as Siya Kolisi poached the ball on half-way and the ‘Boks broke themselves with JP Pietersen running on to a perfectly weighted Jantjies kick to score.
The fly-half converted and his side led by three at the interval.
O’Halloran didn’t return after the interval meaning Matt Healy made his full debut and Keith Earls switched to full-back but Ireland continued their positive play after half-time and again might have led but for a brilliant du Klerk intercept as Jackson gave the final pass to Earls after some clever, pre-planned set-up in the forwards.
Instead, it was South Africa who struck next with Ruan Combrinck nailing a penalty from inside his own half after the replacement props Steven Kitshoff and Julian Redelinghuys made an immediate impact in their first scrum.
Joe Schmidt’s players were visibly fading, but the coach was again reluctant to introduce his bench and by the time Eoin Reddan, Rhys Ruddock and Ultan Dillane came on it was a two score game as Jantjies put his side nine points in front.
From the kick-off, Rory Best forced a penalty that allowed Jackson cancel that score out and with 10 minutes remaining there were six points between them.
Ireland kept believing and the fresh impetus from the bench was making a difference as Sean Cronin raced 50m into the Springboks’ territory, but despite a dramatic series of phases the visitors couldn’t find the gap they needed and eventually Ruddock went off his feet.
Still, Ireland came and brilliant foot-work from Stuart Olding took them close to the line and they battered at the line repeatedly. Finally, the ball reached Keith Earls who had Healy outside him, but du Klerk rushed up and hit him hard. In piled the ‘Boks and the winger held on.
That was it, the series was lost and Ireland went on their holidays full of regret.
SOUTH AFRICA – W le Roux; R Combrinck, L Mapoe, D de Allende, JP Pietersen; E Jantjes, F du Klerk; T Mtawarira, A Strauss (capt), L Mapoe; T Mtawarira (S Kitshoff 57), A Strauss (B Mbonambi 79(, F Malherbe (J Redelinghuys 57), E Etzebeth (F Mostert 74), PS du Toit; F Louw, S Kolisi (J Kriel 60), W Whiteley.
IRELAND – T O’Halloran (M Healy 11-19 HIA, h-t); A Trimble, L Marshall (K Earls 77), S Olding, K Earls (I Madigan 73); P Jackson, C Murray (E Reddan 69); J McGrath, R Best (capt) (S Cronin 73), M Ross (T Furlong 51); I Henderson (U Dillane 69), D Toner; CJ Stander (R Ruddock 69), J Murphy, J Heaslip.
Referee: G Jackson (New Zealand)