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Highveld heartbreak and more talking points from Ireland's agonising defeat to South Africa

Superb Springbok comeback denies Ireland history in Johannesburg.

Rory Best dejected Gutted: Rory Best contemplates Ireland's brush with history. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

1. Highveld heartbreak

Travelling to the Highveld always looked likely to provide Ireland with their toughest test of this three-Test series and so it proved.

After ruthlessly punishing South Africa’s breakdown indiscipline, they led by 16 points at half-time and by the same margin again when Jamie Heaslip drove over in the corner with 20 minutes to play.

A historic series win was within their grasp just at the moment when the thin Johannesburg air began to take its toll. South Africa scored 22 points without reply in that final quarter as the fatigued Irish players started to fall off their tackles and couldn’t muster the same energy to slow South African ball at the breakdown.

Captain Rory Best was reluctant to blame the altitude for Ireland’s late collapse, but it can’t be ignored as a contributing factor.

South Africa Ireland Rugby Comeback kid: Ruan Combrinck launched the Boks' revival. Source: Themba Hadebe

2. Strong bench kick-starts the Bok Lash

While Ireland started to falter in the second half, Allister Coetzee’s changes were instrumental in turning the tide.

Ruan Combrinck and Warren Whiteley were sent on at half-time to replace Lwazi Mvovo, who struggled badly with Ireland’s aerial attacks, and Duane Vermeulen. They had an immediate impact and set South Africa on course for their tremendous comeback.

Combrinck, known as ‘The Punisher’ to his friends, lived up to that billing with a wrecking-ball display, scoring South Africa’s first try and then setting up Whiteley for the second with another thunderous run.

South Africa Ireland Rugby Warren Whiteley powered past Quinn Roux to score South Africa's second. Source: Themba Hadebe

Without labouring the point about the altitude, it’s worth noting that Coetzee’s first three changes (Combrinck, Whiteley and Julian Redelinghuys) are all Lions players who ply their Super Rugby trade at Ellis Park.

At a time when the crowd were getting increasingly edgy, introducing some local favourites didn’t hurt either.

3. Schmidt’s selection pays dividends

If Ireland had held on to secure a historic series win, Joe Schmidt’s team selection would be hailed as a tactical masterpiece. The disappointment of the final score and near miss should not override the many positives that were on show.

Schmidt spoke this week of his desire to develop squad depth and a number of the squad’s fringe faces showed that they were ready for the fight.

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Paddy Jackson Paddy Jackson kicked 16 points in another impressive performance. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Tadhg Furlong and debutant Quinn Roux rarely looked in trouble on the tighthead side of the Irish scrum — a remarkable feat when you remember that they were up against one of the best props in the world, Tendai Mtawarira, for 50 minutes. It was the foundation for an impressive set-piece that had the bewildered Boks marching backwards more than once.

Rhys Ruddock, making his first international start in 18 months, had a strong claim as Ireland’s man of the match.

And Paddy Jackson’s international development continued on its upward trajectory with a confident playmaking display and 16 points from the tee.

Rhys Ruddock with Pieter Steph du Toit Ruddock: one of Ireland's outstanding performers. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

4. On to the next one

And so we head to Port Elizabeth for the third and final Test to decide what has been an absolutely gripping series so far.

Only two teams have won series on South African soil in the professional era — New Zealand in 1996 and the Lions in 1997. Did Ireland let their best chance to join that elite group slip through their fingers today?

Craig Gilroy, Jamie Heaslip, Rory Best and Rhys Ruddock dejected So near - yet so far. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Don’t underestimate the monumental effort that this afternoon’s performance took. It’s up to Schmidt and his management team now to manage the reaction so that the disappointment of their near miss does not have a knock-on effect.

It’s all still up for grabs next week — plus, CJ Stander will be back. It could be worse.

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About the author:

Niall Kelly

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