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Ireland short on power for heavyweight battles


The stat of two wins from Ireland's last 10 games is one you would associate with the amateur era, and not from a side who in 2009 were Grand Slam champions.

The more that achievement is mentioned, however, the more it seems to have been one of those happy journeys when even wrong turns ended up right. And since then it has been mostly heavy traffic and little progress.

Ireland, decimated by injury, did not play badly against a superior physical force, equally hampered by withdrawals and low on fuel at the tail end of their season. Maybe it was fatigue, or lack of interest, but we got two radically different halves from the Springboks: the first, woefully indisciplined, saw them turn over 12-3 down on the scoreboard but excelling on the sloppy stat -- they conceded a massive 11 penalties to Ireland's six in the first 40 minutes. They cleaned that up significantly in the second half, adding just four more, while by the finish Ireland had joined them on 15.

It may well be that Ireland's most frequent offence was in not releasing the ball at the tackle, where they were always under huge pressure. The Springboks have an all-star back-row trio still at home, rehabilitating, but there's not a lot wrong with the work ethic and effectiveness of the unit they have brought on this trip.

They ramped up the pressure in the second period after what you'd imagine was a fairly frank analysis from coach Heyneke Meyer at the changeover. The only time they looked really exercised in the first 40 was when they went a man down.

The almost full house at Lansdowne Road were howling for a red card on the half hour when wing JP Pietersen, who during the week drew unfortunate attention to himself by thinking he was playing France rather than Ireland, poleaxed Chris Henry about a second before the ball arrived.

You could understand his eagerness, for Henry had mopped up comfortably on Patrick Lambie's restarts after Jonny Sexton's opening three penalties. There he was waiting for the fourth, which had put Ireland 12-3 ahead, when the Pietersen express arrived ahead of schedule. Shemozzle follows -- the Boks looked like they would win that one had it escalated -- the crowd go mad, and Ireland can make no capital from the extra player.

Declan Kidney's men will he exhausted and demoralised after this effort. And it was a huge effort. They were caught between two stools in trying to play rugby with tempo and width but not having first-choice carriers to get them over the tackle line. And when they went out the back, too often it was so far out the back as to be flashing on the big screen, which the Springbok defenders appreciated.

On the other hand, when they tried to pick and jam their way forward they ran the risk of being poached, and regularly that's what happened. All of which closed off a lot of avenues for them. In the circumstances their lineout needed to be top class, but unlike their opponents who were 100 per cent, Ireland lost three of their 15 throws, and never really managed to use it to open up the tourists.

Naturally enough they couldn't biff their way to success either. When replacements Fergus McFadden, Ronan O'Gara and Eoin Reddan joined the ranks it made Ireland's backline probably the lightest in the international game, and in this business that's a handicap.

The fact that they were trying so hard, and that in the first half Sexton was grabbing every opportunity from the wayward Boks in the first period, meant that South Africa never got the game safe on the scoreboard. Sexton was two from six, while Lambie and Ruan Pienaar -- again he was excellent -- missed three between them. It was Pienaar's seven points, five minutes into the second half, that swung the game.

It came with Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip in the sin-bin for unwisely trying to illegally infiltrate a Bok maul, a tactic they used to great effect. His try, under the sticks after intense pressure, and conversion, brought the scores back to 12-10 to the home team.

The tide had turned however. If they were more creative and had more energy they would have flooded the place but in any case they had enough. Lambie put them ahead on 52 minutes, with a penalty against Peter O'Mahony, but instead of kicking on from there Ireland did well to respond.

Not well enough for it to count on the scoreboard though. Instead they managed two long passages of continuity without looking like they had the Boks really worried, and on both they turned the ball over at the tackle. Nor did they have any firepower to throw in off the bench.

Richardt Strauss on his debut was good, and was missed when he went, and Mike McCarthy deserved his man of the match award for his carries and tackles. There were new caps too for Dave Kilcoyne -- on temporarily for Cian Healy who looked like he would need an adrenaline shot to revive him, but incredibly he returned in five minutes -- Michael Bent and Iain Henderson.

They would have wished to start it all off on a happier note, but this was an under-strength team looking very short on power and coming up, well, short. The news from Cardiff won't have cheered them up too much either. Hard to see how they'll pick up from here.

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), J Heaslip (capt)(yc 44-54), C Henry

South Africa: Z Kirchner; JP Pietersen (yc 31-41), J Taute, J de Villiers, 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), D Vermeulen, W Alberts (M Coetzee 65), F Louw

Referee: W Barnes (England)

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