Pressure increases on Declan Kidney as limp second half exposes Ireland’s limitations
South Africa 16
What struck one most was the grim inevitability of it all, the slow submission, the absence of any sense of rage or wit in the face of brutish, over-powering physicality.
There was effort, lots of effort, but then that is a minimum requirement of highly paid professionals. Ireland lost without dishonour. Ireland still lost.
They are becoming serial losers and we are reduced to assessing the measure of each loss. That this was not as bad as the previous one -- nothing could be -- does not inure people to the suspicion that the next one is just around the corner.
Thank heavens for the joyful, but clueless Fijians, whose embarrassing escapade on Saturday in Twickenham could be a blessing in disguise for this Irish side, who won't have long to feel good about themselves before the Pumas pitch up.
Whether it was in the stands, and the vapid Mexican wave from clearly exasperated, detached support, or on the pitch, like in that stultifying late 75th-minute play from an attacking line-out, when Ireland fumbled in the dark like a drunk looking for a lightswitch, this was a brutal reminder of a harsh truth.
Ireland without their best players are an ordinary team -- eighth in the world is probably their level.
That Ireland have sunk to eighth with their best players in tow is a separate concern and not unattached to the debate about the coaching ticket, which, for all its enthusiastic internal rapport, appears to be running on empty.
For now, the bridge between reality and expectation grows ever more yawning with each passing day.
Even with Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney, Ireland would not have won last Saturday; with Paul O'Connell, too, they may have survived. But losing this trio -- and the beef of Sean O'Brien and Stephen Ferris -- was just too much of a burden to carry and, if Ireland had struggled to break the line when in relative first-half control, there was no way they were going to do so when on the back foot thereafter.
There was a moment in the first half when referee Wayne Barnes berated Irish captain Jamie Heaslip for repeatedly asking him the same questions because they were beginning to lack credibility. He could have been talking about the tortuous development of a tortuous game.
South Africa, a mediocre mob who put in an "unacceptable" first-half shift according to their coach, had arrived here with a one-dimensional plan and in need of a morale boost after conspiring to toss away so many advantages this year. Mercifully for them, their hosts were most inviting.
Ireland, it now seems, have become a team who have forgotten how to win. Despite the evidence of just two successes in eight games and an absence of consistency since Grand Slam days, Kidney disagrees.
"They definitely haven't forgotten how to win," demurs the under-fire coach. "They're still confident in what they're trying to do, it's just a frustration.
"And I know they're going to click. We have had ourselves in some situations like that alright and they've gone against us, but you just have to stay the pace with it, because you know it will turn.
"It's a learning process, it's a tough one, butI've been down this road before and I know how it twists, but they have to twist it themselves."
The only thing twisting at the moment are the knives poised for the coaches' backs; only Anthony Foley in defence had a reasonably good day at the office, and even then individual errors there allowed the 'Boks to hammer home their advantage.
Ireland were on the cusp of victory at half-time; had Sexton landed a kick for 15-3 or had Ireland managed to create a scoring opportunity from a surfeit of ball, they could have been home and hosed against a then uninterested and illdisciplined rabble.
Instead, the visitors returned to the fray five minutes early after the break and Ireland never caught up. A sin-binning resulted in a 10-point swing, with Ruan Pienaar decisively turning the tide.
Officials missed a clear tug on Tommy Bowe on the 'Boks' 10-metre line before they achieved that man and points advantage and, while they were miffed at Heaslip's binning, there was also anger in the Irish camp at a scrum call against Mike Ross.
"I wouldn't go into that one now," says Kidney, perhaps acknowledging that Irish disquiet with officialdom has been regularly frowned upon in IRB circles.
"It was a call. They got 10 points when he was off, we didn't get any when their fella was off."
The scrum decision prompted a wry smile. "I did see it. That's a call, isn't it? The job is to make sure that you don't put yourself in that position to allow the referee to call it on you."
Except Ireland found it difficult to stop back-pedalling and the harder they tried to propel themselves forward, the less effective they proved. And whatever attack strategy Les Kiss delivered to his side, his players must have read it upside down.
"That comes from speed of the ball at the breakdown," said Kidney when asked of his side's inability to even once make a line-break, even when dominating the first half.
"You need to be able to get go-forward on your first phase. And we probably didn't get that. We'll take a look at that.
"We were kicking and contesting well in the first half, but not as well in the second half.
"We could have gone wide on them a bit more, but we knew they'd shepherd us into touch with the way they defend. It's about the first phase, hitting a soft spot behind them and then working on it from there."
Argentina will be just as robust. Four years ago, an experienced Irish side on their uppers beat the Pumas by 14 points. Kidney refutes any attempt at comparative analysis in terms of his current squad's confidence levels.
"You're comparing totally different times. The team four years was a very well settled side. This is a whole new side," he argues.
"They know they can get it right. They know they're good. They're frustrated. They're full of confidence. They've been a joy to work with for this past few weeks. Inside in the dressing-room they're saying 'crap, we let that one get by us again.' They know they're on the right road.
"That group I had four years ago, I knew them a long time back.
"You look at what we had today, we had three new caps who came on, one who had started, four or five others who had only 10 caps. The least capped guy of four years ago probably had 30 caps. So, it was a totally different scenario."
Maybe, but the aim remains the same -- to win. Kidney and his side must hope they can rediscover how to do this.
"If you complain every time there is a penalty it reduces your credibility. I decide, not you."
Wayne Barnes loses patience with new Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip's querying of calls.
"I don't need you, I don't need you."
The English official waves away the captains before yellow carding JP Pietersen.
"I've got winger playing the man without the ball, is that what you have?"
Barnes asks touch-judge Stuart Terheege about JP Pietersen's tackle.
"Yes, he was high and made no attempt with the arms."
"My decision is to send him to the bin."
"Three offences, No 8 was the last one."
Heaslip is the unfortunate player to be picked out from the gallery of Irish offenders and is sent to the bin for infringing at the maul.
"Twenty-three minutes, first scrum, eh?"
Barnes chuckles as he awards the first scrum of the second half with 17 minutes remaining.
Ireland -- S Zebo; T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy (R O'Gara 75), A Trimble (F McFadden 59); J Sexton, C Murray (E Reddan 62); C Healy, R Strauss (S Cronin 75), M Ross (M Bent 71); D Ryan, M McCarthy (D O'Callaghan 71); P O'Mahony (I Henderson 71), C Henry, J Heaslip (capt).
South Africa -- Z Kirchner; JP Pietersen, J Taute, J de Villiers (capt), F Hougaard; P Lambie, R Pienaar; CJ van der Linde (H van der Merwe 64), A Strauss, J du Plessis (P Cilliers 56); E Etzebeth (F van der Merwe 71), J Kruger; F Louw, W Alberts (M Coetzee 65), D Vermeulen.
Ref -- W Barnes (England).