IN the end Ireland weren't all that bad yesterday, but they were nowhere near good enough. As desperately as Declan Kidney's side needed a victory, there was little enough shame in a 16-12 defeat.
Nor was there much honour in defeat. After a lacklustre opening 40 minutes, the sheer power South Africa brought to the second half was breathtaking at times and, missing so many front-line players, it wasn't surprising that Ireland failed to contain them.
Kidney's problem is a collective one, though. Yesterday represented his team's sixth loss in succession, the worst run by any Ireland team in the professional era, and there is no coach alive who could stand behind such a dismal record. And though there were mitigating factors, Kidney at least knew better than to try and hide behind them.
"We won't make excuses," he said defiantly. "We've good players here too and we just need to learn from it. There's a little bit of experience that we need and we'll need to be better at the breakdown. The fact that we were unable to get ourselves quick ball in the second half was making it difficult for everybody."
Jamie Heaslip summed the day up in a few sentences. Captain for the day in the absence of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, Heaslip led his side well but, during the 10 minutes he was sin-binned early in the second half, South Africa increased their intensity, put 10 points on the board and, effectively, closed out the match. It was as clinical as that.
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"They made the most of the yellow card," Heaslip said. "We didn't when we had the opportunity ourselves. They took their scores well and showed what kind of side they are. They closed our space down and put us under pressure. We'll have to look at ourselves. We turned over ball quite easily. At times in their half we didn't have the accuracy. It's a little bit frustrating after such a good start."
Heaslip wasn't lying. South Africa, like Ireland, were missing a host of regular players and, for 40 minutes, they looked so disjointed that a comfortable Irish victory seemed a distinct possibility. Four Jonny Sexton penalties helped Ireland to a nine-point interval lead, but it was worrying that, for all the possession they enjoyed, Ireland hardly ever penetrated the South African defence.
And then, South Africa lifted their game and pulled clear, not like a juggernaut, but enough to make it count. Heyneke Meyer, their coach, spoke afterwards of "harsh words" being thrown around the dressing-room and the team that emerged for the second half was totally unlike the rabble that had finished the first.
With Heaslip binned, Ruan Pienaar dashed over for a try in the 44th minute, Pat Lambie kicked them in front seven minutes later and, try as they did, Ireland never looked like clawing their way back.
Kidney spoke later about "bits of progress" being made, the "step forward" his team had taken since the 60-point drubbing in Hamilton in June, but the coach knew it was a hard sell. He had awarded four new caps yesterday and those players performed admirably, particularly Mike McCarthy and Simon Zebo. The pressure is beginning to tell, though, and it would seem strange if it wasn't.
"It's been a difficult fixture list," Kidney conceded, "and we have a lot of young players there now, a lot of new caps from today. It's about being as positive as possible because we are just at the start of the series and we have another big game against Fiji next week. We'll have to see how guys repair from this match and pick a team for next week."
Never mind next week, though. What matters for Kidney now is orchestrating a badly-needed victory against Argentina who visit Lansdowne Road on Saturday week knowing that a win will confirm their higher ranking. For Kidney, such a fate would be another embarrassment.
Before then the Pumas will face France, but whatever happens there, they will surely travel to Dublin brimming with confidence after a hugely impressive 26-12 victory over Wales in the Millennium Stadium. Kidney will have to hope that O'Connell, at least, makes a sharp recovery. Ireland remain horribly brittle without their leaders, the coach's future growing more uncertain by the game.