Boks spoil Irish homecoming
Dublin - World champions South Africa spoilt Ireland's return to Lansdowne Road with a 23-21 victory on Saturday that kept alive hopes of a first Springbok Grand Slam in 50 years.
South Africa were seemingly out of sight at 23-9 in front mid-way through the second half after tries from Juan Smith and Gio Aplon before Ireland crossed the Springbok line courtesy of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney.
Full-back Kearney's score cut South Africa's lead to 23-21 with barely five minutes remaining.
It left fly-half Ronan O'Gara, who had come off the bench to win his 100th cap, with a tricky conversion to tie the scores.
But, from wide on the right, O'Gara's kick came back off the post and the Springboks, then a man down after Bryan Habana was yellow-carded, held on.
Playing much the more controlled rugby, South Africa's victory ended a run of three straight defeats by Ireland, all in Dublin, and gave coach Peter de Villiers some breathing space after a Tri-Nations where the Springboks lost five of their six matches.
However, a welter of substitutions in the final quarter almost turned the match on its head with Ireland coach Declan Kidney's decision to bring on O'Gara so nearly leading to a dramatic victory at a rain-lashed Lansdowne.
"We had a good lead and we defended it (but) you always worry, the game isn't won until it's over - we have learned this in the Tri Nations," De Villiers said.
South Africa dominated the lineout after stand-on captain Victor Matfield was reunited with Bakkies Botha, back from suspension, in the second row against an Ireland side without star lock Paul O'Connell.
"We have lost quite a few games in the last minute, particularly at home, so we've done well," Matfield said.
Just short of the hour mark, de Villiers took off the uninjured Morne Steyn to give a debut to 20-year-old Pat Lambie, man-of-the-match in the Sharks' Currie Cup final win over Western Province last weekend.
Ireland's game - their first at Lansdowne in four years following the ground's 410 million euros redevelopment - was littered with individual errors.
They tried to force the pace against a South Africa side who, playing the conditions better, used their forward strength to play with greater precision.
"Only the 30 guys who took the field had a real understanding as to how difficult conditions were out there," said Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll.
"That ball was like a bar of soap," added the centre after what was Ireland's fourth straight defeat.
"We were trying to play a little bit, whether that was the smart thing to do in those conditions."
Ireland were forced to make 18 tackles in the first five minutes and their discipline eventually gave way when they were caught offside.
Goalkicking ace Steyn made no mistake with the simple penalty.
And it was an Irish error that led to the game's first try when, from a line-out, flanker Smith intercepted scrum-half Eoin Reddan's blind pass and sprinted clear from fully 65 metres before sliding over in the 17th minute.
Fly-half Steyn made the seemingly difficult conversion from the right touchline look easy to extend South Africa's lead to 10-0.
An exchange of penalties ended with the Springboks 13-6 ahead at the interval.
Ireland made a mess of the restart but Steyn's world record run of 41 successful goalkicks in a row when he pushed the ensuing 45-metre penalty wide of the right post.
Meanwhile South Africa gained ground with the simple but effective ploy of powerful mauling and this led to a penalty that Steyn kicked from wide out on the right to extend South Africa's lead to 16-6.
Sexton kept the hosts in touch with his third penalty before de Villiers brought on Lambie.
The 20-year-old had a chance to nudge the Springboks further in front but was way off-target with a 35 metre penalty attempt.
"We were controlling the game, we don't know what's going to happen in the rest of the tour," said de Villiers ahead of next weekend's clash with Wales.
"The substitution that went against us was when O'Gara came on."
Minutes after Lambie's miss, the Springboks had a second try when centre Zane Kirchner's clever inside pass released Aplon to score under the posts in the 65th minute.
Cue the Irish rally, with O'Gara's clever kick over the South Africa defence allowing Bowe to regather and score under the posts before the stand-off converted.
Ireland laid siege to South Africa's line after O'Gara's kick downfield and the pressure told when Kearney went in at the corner to set up a tense finish.
Tries: Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney
Penalties: Jonathan Sexton (3)
Conversion: Ronan O'Gara
Tries: Juan Smith, Gio Aplon
Penalties: Morne Steyn (3)
Conversions: Steyn, Patrick Lambie
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O'Driscoll (captain), 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Mick O'Driscoll, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 Tony Buckley, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy
Substitutes: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Tom Court, 18 Donncha Ryan, 19 Denis Leamy, 20 Peter Stringer, 21 Ronan O'Gara, 22 Keith Earls
15 Gio Aplon, 14 Bjorn Basson, 13 Zane Kirchner, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (captain), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Keegan Daniel, 20 Francois Hougaard, 21 Adi Jacobs, 22 Pat Lambie