Irish Rugby returned home yesterday when Ireland kicked off their Autumn International series at the newly built Aviva Stadium. The match also recognised Ronan O’Gara’s contribution to the sport as he made his 100th appearance for Ireland, and Gordon D’Arcy claimed his 50th cap for his country. Unfortunately, the result was not to be celebrated as Ireland fell to a 23-21 defeat to World Cup champions, South Africa.
To mark the special occasion of the first international match at the Aviva, South Africa waived the unique rugby tradition where, if there is a clash of colours, the visiting team wears its home jersey. This allowed the Ireland team to wear their famous green jersey for the fixture.
Ireland seemed nervous as the game got underway, and it took South Africa just three minutes to unsettle those nerves even further when Morné Steyn dropped back for a drop at goal. His kick was short of the posts but Ireland had been given a glance at the threat the fly-half posed.
Three minutes later and Ireland were caught offside allowing Steyn to opt for the posts and rectify his earlier miss. His kick was on target and the first international points scored at the Aviva Stadium went to the visitors. Ireland 0 – South Africa 3.
South Africa continued to dominate possession and play, until a loose ball from the bottom of a ruck was kicked down the field by Cian Healy. Ireland were quick on the chase but South Africa fullback Gio Aplon reached the ball first, before being tackled by Brian O’Driscoll just metres from his own 22. Despite putting the Boks under immense pressure, any chance Ireland had of scoring a try soon evaporated when O’Driscoll was penalised for not releasing the player after a tackle.
Unforced errors and poor communication from Ireland hampered their attempts to put their mark on the scoreboard and as the end of the first quarter approached, South Africa edged further into the lead when a messy lineout saw Eoin Redden scramble to claim the ball and a wayward pass to Luke Fitzgerald was intercepted by Springboks’ flanker Juan Smith. He stormed down the field, slipped out of Rob Kearney’s last-minute tackle and touched down for the visitors’ first try of the match. It was successfully converted by Steyn and took the score to Ireland 0 – South Africa 10.
Twenty-seven minutes played and Jonathan Sexton put Ireland’s first points on the board after the referee penalised South Africa for being offside. Ireland 3 – South Africa 10.
As the weather conditions deteriorated, both sides continued to trade kicks and hard tackles for the following ten minutes, with neither side adding to their points tally. A poor pass from the Boks’ was agonisingly close to being intercepted by winger Tommy Bowe but it proved to be too far out of his reach.
An Ireland infringement at scrum time allowed Steyn to opt for goal once again and slotted his kick between the posts. A penalty awarded to Ireland in the final minute of the first half was easily within Sexton’s range – after referee Nigel Owens marched the Springboks’ back 10m for backchat – and as it landed between the posts, the half-time whistle went.
Half-time score: Ireland 6 – South Africa 13
Having changed out of their special commemorative shirts after encountering problems with them in the first half, Ireland returned back to the field in their usual jerseys and looked determined to put in a better second-half performance.
Yet it was South Africa who had the first chance to score more points when Donncha O’Callaghan was penalised for interfering in the lineout. Steyn missed his kick – the first of the match – and the score remained unchanged.
Again, weather conditions and numerous errors from both teams made for uncomfortable viewing, until a powerful break from Jamie Heaslip on 48 minutes seemed he was about to change Ireland’s fortunes. Unfortunately, a couple of errors from the side meant another opportunity came to no avail. Five minutes later an Ireland infringement allowed Steyn to nudge his team further into the lead. His kick was on target, bringing the score to Ireland 6 – South Africa 16.
South African hooker, Bismarck du Plessis popped up in a scrum and Ireland were awarded the penalty on 56 minutes and a magnificent kick from Sexton brought the Irishmen within a converted score of the Boks. Ireland 9 – South Africa 16.
As the final quarter began, Steyn was replaced by debutant Patrick Lambie, who missed a straightforward penalty in front of the posts shortly after coming onto the field. Five minutes later, a gap in the Irish defence allowed Aplon to cut inside Bowe and slide behind the posts to score his side’s second try. Lambie successfully converted the try and South Africa regained a definitive lead. Ireland 9 – South Africa 23.
The introduction of Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara for Reddan and Sexton respectively, saw Ireland’s game alter drastically. O’Gara, making his 100th cap for his side, chipped a kick to Bowe who was waiting on the right wing. Bowe gathered the ball after a perfect bounce and sprinted towards the Springboks’ 22 before touching down behind the posts for Ireland’s first try of the game. O’Gara landed the conversion, narrowing the points’ deficit to 7 points once more. Ireland 16 – South Africa 23.
As South Africa’s defence started to deteriorate, Ireland took advantage of the situation and a well-spotted gap on the left wing, allowed Heaslip to drive through and get ever closer to the try line. Ireland upped their intensity and as they made their way across the field a long pass from O’Gara set Kearney up perfectly to score Ireland’s second try, with 6 minutes left on the clock. O’Gara was agonisingly close to converting the try but his kick hit off the right upright, leaving Ireland trailing by two points. Ireland 21 – South Africa 23.
South Africa’s Brian Habana was sin binned immediately after the try, meaning Ireland had a one man advantage for the final five minutes of the match. Regardless of this advantage, South Africa remained the more dominant side and as they piled the pressure onto Ireland, they were able to wind the clock down before kicking the ball into touch.
As the final whistle blew, Ireland’s Autumn International series started with a loss, and a disappointing beginning for their campaign to make the Aviva Stadium the new home of Irish Rugby.
Full-time score: Ireland 21 – South Africa 23