Ireland invest in future but leave with regrets
Long term, there will be great benefit to be drawn from this three-Test series in South Africa for Ireland and Joe Schmidt, but it was hard to gaze too far into the future on Saturday night when they had looked a series win in the eye and then somehow blinked.
South Africa 19 Ireland 13
For the vast majority of the 240 minutes they played against the Springboks over the last three weeks, Ireland were the superior team.
This is not a vintage South African side and they were there for the taking on three occasions. Ireland only managed to win once.
In Johannesburg, they could legitimately blame the altitude as the Boks came on strong in the final quarter, but in Port Elizabeth they had no excuses as they dominated possession and territory but couldn't finish some gilt-edged chances.
Sure, they weren't helped by the officials and the news on Saturday night that Willie le Roux had been cited for tackling Tiernan O'Halloran in the air came too late for the tourists.
The Bok full-back had played his part in the victory and the one-week ban he received for his reckless challenge in the 11th minute will do Ireland no good.
For Schmidt, there was a sense of crushing disappointment. All in all, this tour has been a success for the coach, who has kept Ireland's competitiveness while using 32 players at a time when he was without a string of front-line men.
He'd have taken three close Test matches and a first win over the Boks on South African soil before he left Dublin, but to have the chances that Ireland had and pass them up meant that the context had changed by the time he faced the media on Saturday night.
He hopes his players learn from their experience and, when the opportunities present themselves in November and beyond they'll be better prepared.
"The last I felt this similar disappointment was when we didn't get the win against the All Blacks (in 2013), when we had a similar lead. We came out and we won the Six Nations post that," he said.
"Players learn from that. They think 'hang on a minute, we can actually foot it'. To be written off to the degree that we were before the tour probably galvanised the group to a degree but it didn't do their confidence a lot of good.
"Thankfully we had some good experience interspersed amongst the younger players and that allowed them to get a bit of confidence, and I think they demonstrated that.
"Unfortunately we were missing a little bit of experience today and we had very much a kind of patched-together backline
"So it is what it is. To talk about (the missing) players really detracts from the wholehearted commitment and the learnings that we've gained by these young guys being thrust into an environment that's relatively hostile."
For game three, Schmidt changed the plan and Ireland went for a ground-game that stunned the Springboks, who had grown used to aerial bombardment.
It was the style of play many Ireland fans crave and it was pleasing on the eye, but it relies on players making the right decisions, and on too many occasions the final pass just wasn't on the money.
At the end of a long season, there was a fall-off at the scrum and some struggles at the breakdown.
Yet, had Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson taken the right options at critical junctures, then Ireland would be celebrating a historic series win.
They forced South Africa to play without the ball and in their own half for long periods, but the home scrum and their improved ruck work earned them a half-time lead as Elton Jantjies deftly chipped the ball over Andrew Trimble for JP Pietersen to score.
Jantjies converted to make it 13-10 at the break as Ireland lamented their failure to add to Marshall's first international try and a solitary Jackson penalty.
Yet, they can legitimately argue that they should have been playing against 14 men for 70 minutes after Le Roux careered into O'Halloran at high-speed and the Ireland full-back came down heavily on his upper-body. After consulting with his TMO, Glen Jackson opted for yellow. It should have been red.
Still, Ireland should have led: Marshall butchered a two-on-one with Keith Earls ready to saunter home, while Jackson missed a kickable penalty.
South Africa stretched their lead through kicks from Jantjies and Ruan Combrinck after the interval but again Ireland spurned a glorious chance as Jackson's pass to Trimble was picked off by a brilliantly athletic leap from Faf de Klerk. It shouldn't have come to that though, as Jackson had other options but chose perhaps the toughest pass.
Schmidt delayed emptying his bench, but when they did come on in the final 10 minutes they made a big impact and almost won it.
Yet the Springboks defended heroically, first repelling 22 phases and then 20 on their own line as referee Jackson again courted controversy with a final penalty to the hosts when it looked like De Klerk had committed an offence after shooting up to deny Earls.
Schmidt refused to blame the referee afterwards, instead lamenting the missed opportunities.
"The younger guys have made a great investment and the success will be made in the longer term but any investment you've got to be a little bit patient with," he said.
"I'm not going to rip into a player who made a poor decision or didn't execute something under Test match pressure, because I want them to keep going, to keep gaining confidence that they can cope in the arena that we're in.
"Over these three Tests they should have learned that they can."
They leave with regrets, but in the long-term they'll benefit from the experience.
SOUTH AFRICA - W le Roux; R Combrinck, L Mapoe, D de Allende, JP Pietersen; E Jantjes, F de 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.
REF - G Jackson (New Zealand)