'Devastated' Joe Schmidt still brims with pride
South Africa 32 Ireland 26
Published 20/06/2016 | 02:30
Devastated as he was by his side's capitulation at Ellis Park, Joe Schmidt was keen to emphasise the fact that with the series level at one-all and the aggregate score 52-52, things couldn't be more even going into Saturday's final Test.
It didn't feel that way in Johannesburg as the Springboks reacted to being booed off at half-time at their traditional fortress by producing a second-half performance that blew Ireland away.
Momentum may be intangible, but it seems to be firmly with the hosts now after they scored four tries in a rampant 30-minute period, out-scoring Ireland 29-7 and inflicting a defeat that brought the scars of the worst days of the Schmidt era back to the surface.
The tourists had the series in their hands twice, but they kicked it away. It had echoes of the loss to New Zealand in 2013 in the way that they stopped playing, while their defensive performance in the face of a thunderous cacophony was reminiscent of the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina.
Having produced a wretched opening 40, South Africa coach Allister Coetzee responded to the insubordination in the stands by sending local heroes Warren Whiteley and Ruan Combrinck on at half-time and they turned the game in the 'Boks' favour.
In contrast, while Schmidt got his starting XV spot on, his bench lacked any of the necessary fire-power to cope with what they faced.
While pleased with the way his team had built their lead, the New Zealander was left stunned.
"I know that it's not good enough, that last quarter, but when you're working with a team of five changes, the guys I thought linked up really well and they delivered against a very big team," he said.
"I'm still really proud of what they've done so far but they're really disappointed, as am I. I think our supporters will be really disappointed because how often do you get that opportunity to create a bit of history that as an individual team only the All Blacks have done?
"We're pretty devastated because of the position we put ourselves in and we let it slip through our fingers.
"It's so tough to take because it's so hard to get into that position.
"To be in that position with a quarter of the game to go and you're up by 16 points, you know it's three scores but I think there's always a natural temptation to go into your shell a little bit and you just can't afford to do that with the Springboks.
"They kept coming after us and we didn't quite have the answers."
It's difficult to reconcile the control Ireland showed for the first 45 minutes with the chaos that followed.
For the second week running, they weathered the early storm and after conceding a penalty from the first scrum and going 3-0 down through Elton Jantjies' kick, they kept the home side scoreless for 52 minutes and built a lead that should have been unassailable.
Paddy Jackson was calmness personified as he knocked over four penalties, before the aerial targeting of Lwazi Mvovo reaped its reward as Andrew Trimble caused the winger to panic and Rhys Ruddock put Devin Toner over.
Even when Jackson missed for the first time with half-time approaching there seemed little need to worry and the loud booing that greeted the half-time whistle would have been music to the visiting players' ears.
When play resumed, there was little sense of what was to come as Ireland turned the screw at the scrum and Jackson again missed - albeit from almost 60m.
On a day when they lost by six points, those kicks would turn out to be pivotal and the visitors could have done with creating some more doubt in the 'Boks' minds.
Instead, Ireland effectively shut up shop and stopped playing. With Mvovo gone, they failed to re-adjust and continued to kick to a much more potent back-three who suddenly looked lethal.
The kicks grew looser, the chasers looked tired and the result was Willie le Roux scorching outside Jack McGrath and Combrinck running over Jackson.
Suddenly, Ellis Park was behind their team but Ireland didn't panic. Tahdg Furlong charged down Faf de Klerk's box-kick and they followed that by winning a penalty. Rory Best went to the corner and the pack executed an excellent maul that saw Jamie Heaslip touch down.
With 20 minutes remaining, Ireland led 26-10 and a team of their calibre should have seen it out.
But the toll of a long season, the epic 14-man effort in Cape Town and the altitude told as the aggression left their defensive effort and they began to soak tackles at a worrying rate. Whiteley closed the gap again with a finish that McGrath won't want to see again, before Pieter-Steph du Toit knocked a collection of would-be defenders out of his way to go over under the posts.
When Jantjies converted, Ireland's lead was down to four and Ellis Park was brimmed with expectation.
Ireland had 10 minutes to hold out, but their belief was gone and Damian De Allende's try seemed inevitable, even if the score itself was eminently preventable as he brushed off Conor Murray and Trimble's poor tackle and powered past Ruddock to score.
Jantjies nailed the extras and added a penalty to conclude proceedings.
South Africa left the arena to loud acclaim having re-discovered their mojo and stumbled across their best team.
In contrast, Ireland looked like a beaten team and Schmidt's challenge now is to lift them for one their 17th and final Test of 2015/16.
"In the end we had a six-point differential coming out of Newlands; they got a six-point differential today; it couldn't be more all-square," he said. "We're going to take a little bit of confidence from that, particularly in the context of the enormous odds that were staked out against us even winning one test."
SOUTH AFRICA - W le Roux; JP Pietersen, L Mapoe, D de Allende, L Mvovo (R Combrinck h-t); E Jantjes (M Steyn 60-63), F de Klerk; T Mtawarira (T Nkayane 51), A Strauss (capt), F Malherbe (J Redelinghuys 47); E Etzebeth, PS du Toit; F Louw, S Kolisi (F Mostert 68), D Vermeulen (W Whiteley h-t).
IRELAND - J Payne (T O'Halloran 77); A Trimble, R Henshaw (I Madigan 77), S Olding, C Gilroy; P Jackson, C Murray (K Marmion 77); J McGrath (D Kilcoyne 68), R Best (capt) (R Strauss 67), T Furlong (F Bealham 60); D Toner, Q Roux (D Ryan 51); I Henderson (S Reidy 71), R Ruddock (S Reidy 43-50 blood), J Heaslip.
REF - A Gardner (Australia).