IRELAND COUGHED UP at 12-3 half-time advantage to lose 16-12 to South Africa at the Aviva Stadium.
Declan Kidney’s men were full value for their lead at the break as Mike McCarthy and Tommy Bowe impressed but they were ill-prepared for the Springbok fightback in the second-half.
Pat Lambie kicked 11 points but the match-winning moment came on 44 minutes, with Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip in the sin-bin, as Ruan Pienaar dived over under the posts.
Ireland found themselves running into brick ‘Bok walls as they mounted a dogged but uninspiring comeback.
The loss now means Ireland have only won six matches in the last 20 international outings.
Ireland got off to a fine start when Sexton kicked them into an early lead, following some lineout interference on Heaslip.
The Leinster out-half doubled the advantage on 10 minutes when the Boks were offside but Pat Lambie reduced the arrears seven minutes later when Mike McCarthy was whistled for the same offence.
The Connacht lock atoned for his ways almost immediately and Sexton put his side 9-3 ahead,
Ireland worked their way back into the South African half thanks to a blistering break from Simon Zebo and fine carries by Cian Healy and Donnacha Ryan. Their endeavour was soon rewarded as another Sexton penalty made it 12-3.
JP Pietersen – the man who mistook Andrew Trimble for France scrum-half David Skrela – further endeared himself to Irish fans on 30 minutes when he shoulder barged a ball-watching Chris Henry.
The winger was sent to the sin-bin but Ireland could not make the visitors pay as Earls threw the ball out of play to spoil a promising move and Sexton missed a penalty when referee Wayne Barnes called play back for an Irish advantage.
The final act of the half saw Ruan Pienaar miss with a 60-metre shot at goal but the real wake-up call was to come in the second-half.
Pietersen rejoined the action for the second-half and the Springboks made Ireland pay for havuing them wait on the Aviva pitch for almost three minutes.
They won a penalty and Lambie kicked for the corner. The risk paid off when Heaslip was sent to the sin-bin for infringing a heaving South Africam maul.
Adriaan Strauss made the hard yards but it was Ruan Pienaar’s quick-thinking that led to a try under the posts as he dived over to touch down, despite the best efforts of Ryan.
Andrew Trimble’s fumble into touch gave the Boks crucial ground and Lambie made them pay with a penalty to make it 13-12 on 52 minutes when Peter O’Mahony was harshly adjudged to have left his feet as he tried to wrest the ball from Francois Hougaard.
Ireland valiantly forced play back near the South African 22 and Sexton missed the chance to put his side ahead with a missed 45-metre penalty attempt.
Their scrum, however, was starting to creak and the next scoring chance fell to Lambie on 65 minutes. His penalty did not have enough gas to reach the posts.
Prop Heinke van der Merwe then entered the fray and forced a penalty out of Leinster teammate Mike Ross. Lambie made no mistake and the Boks led 16-12 with 10 minutes to play.
Declan Kidney emptied his bench for the final 10 minutes but Ireland could not force their way back into the contest and Ronan O’Gara’s late cameo proved inept as he chipped away the final possession of the match.