Mixed feelings would be an understatement. Fittingly therefore, Joe Schmidt could scarcely conceal either his pride in the effort and ambition of his squad, nor his acute disappointment, after an historic series win slipped through their fingers.
Despite dominating large tracts of the decisive third Test in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, Ireland left two clear try-scoring chances and were hammering at the Springboks’ line as the game ended, their 19-13 defeat being the third six-point margin in the series after their win in Cape Town was overturned by the Springboks in Johannesburg a week ago.
“Look, not taking anything away from the Springboks at all, but sometimes you feel that you just don’t get what you deserve for the amount of effort you put into it,” said Schmidt. “When another team are putting in the equal effort and they manage to keep you out, it’s always disappointing.
“The thing that was most disappointing for us was that we contributed to our own downfall, just a couple of skill execution things and that one-score game swings in our favour and that’s how close we came and that’s probably even more frustrating than if we hadn’t got that close. But the only thing is a victory and that’s what we were after, but I still have to say that I’m incredibly proud of the work ethic.”
Already missing the three players who had occupied the 15 jersey this season, Ireland were further discommoded when Tiernan O’Halloran was forced off half-way through his full debut after a rib injury sustained in an aerial collision with his Springboks counterpart Willie le Roux, who was fortunate to only see a yellow card.
"With a team that became a little bit jumbled when Tiernan [O'Halloran] played on but was pretty much hampered, and once we got to half-time we knew he couldn't continue. Keith Earls, he hasn't played a lot at fullback and we really were in a little bit of disarray I suppose at times, but fighting our way through that, you're still incredibly proud of the effort that the players put in," said Schmidt.
“Particularly I felt we were flat after Jo’burg, Monday and Tuesday a little bit, but Thursday you could see the life start to come back into the team and it wasn’t for a lack of effort, that’s for sure. When you’re coaching, you want perfection but you’ve always to take a bit of pride in the work ethic that’s delivered by your players.”
The Irish head coach also declined to make any comment on the decision by Glen Jackson and his English TMO Rowan Kitt to determine that Le Roux's aerial challenge merely merited a yellow card. (Preposterously, some of the crowd booed in complaint.)
“Look, I don’t really make comments on those incidents, other people deal with them and I probably would still say we were disappointed with CJ’s red card in the first game but I haven’t got any comment to offer really on the incident this evening.”
Given the red card which Stander suffered in the first game, Schmidt was asked if there was a lack of consistency with such refereeing decisions.
“Look, we spent six hours going back through the game to deliver our referee report. We send that back and we get a bit of feedback from referees. We use the official channels to comment, we don’t comment publicly about referee performance because they are an incredibly important part of the game.
“They have an incredibly difficult job to do and I think they go out to do it as best they can. We could probably point the finger at a few errors that we made today. We might have enough to get over the line otherwise so referees are very human as well.”
Overall though, Schmidt knew as well as anyone that this was another chance to win that series that got away.
“I’m massively disappointed. It’s 12 years since we’ve been in this country. To grab the opportunity last week, to have it in our hand and to be pick-pocketed the way we were with a superb South African comeback.
“And then today to have so much energy into a game after a 52-week season is testament to the fortitude of the players. But when you don’t get what you’re looking for, you’re always going to be disappointed particularly when it was such a fine margin at the end of it.”
Nor did Schmidt agree with the prevailing view that Ireland were the better team over the series.
“No, I think there were two good teams in the series and there has to be a winner and a loser and unfortunately we didn’t manage to get the result tonight. I did feel that we played a lot of rugby and we played a lot of good rugby tonight with some new combinations and some repaired combinations at half-time.
"It's never quite as easy to repair those and be fluent with them but I've got huge respect for the way Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall went about their work today. Keith Earls, having to drop into fullback when he doesn't play the position, Matt Healy coming in for his first cap. I suppose the one thing I would say for Tiernan is that it was an unbelievably good take in the air when he did get injured. To commit fully to that and to gets his hands onto it was exceptional.
"There's just been some great standout performances. It's great to see Jordi Murphy come back into form, he's had a tough season provincially not getting a lot of time because there were a number or players ahead of him playing really well so it's great to see him going well. Some of the guys that we do rely on, some of the guys who are always amongst us like Rory, like Dev, like Jack McGrath, Iain Henderson, the engine room they just toiled away with a magnificent effort today.
“We showed a bit of inexperience to be honest, a few times,” he admitted, in reference to the try-scoring chances that went abegging. “What could have happened, what might have happened is something that those players will have learned. I think that there’s a 14-point swing just before half-time when we make a great break up the pitch, we’re one pass away from putting Keith Earls away and the pass isn’t efficiently delivered and we miss the opportunity with the forward pass.
“Faf du Klerk leaping to get that ball, there’s not too many people around him and with a little bit of patience we could have made the most of that opportunity. The maul at that time was still upright and potentially could have kept going, I thought it was a great option to swing back and attack that short side with good numbers but you’ve got to be clinical, you’ve got to be efficient in your execution, because in a Test match you don’t get too many invitations. We got a couple of nice invites tonight that we didn’t turn up for.”
When asked what the gap was between the two hemispheres Schmidt said: “Six points,” before adding: “There’s no chasm there, it’s not huge and what England managed to achieve in clean sweeping Australia was exceptional and I don’t think we did too badly either.
“There was some big results (for Wales) against the All Blacks, but then again the All Blacks tend to do that by habit and it’s a tough place to go. But I felt this was a tough place to go as well. I’ve been in the country a lot of times with Super Rugby and you don’t get offered too much on a plate, you have to go and find your own food, you’ve got to rummage for anything you do get on the points table.”
Likewise the Irish captain Rory Best could not mask his acute sense of regret. "We're disappointed. Before we left Dublin, people had written us off and while there was a lot of talk about coming here and making history by winning one match, within the group we felt we could come here and win a Test series.
“After Cape Town, we put ourselves in a fantastic position to do that and to have fallen short is bitterly disappointment. A six-point game in all three Tests shows how tight it was and we’ll look back on a first-half when as a frontrow we didn’t fire the way we wanted to. Whenever the set-piece is struggling a little bit it’s a bit harder to find your rhythm around the pitch as you’d like.
“At half-time, there was a bit of ‘let’s just roll up the sleeves and get on with it as best we can’, but look there’s been a lot of young guys been blooded, a lot of positives in terms of the historic win in Cape Town and so many young guys getting their first cap or maybe adding to the handful of caps they had and playing really well. But ultimately, as a group, there’s not a game that we go into that we don’t expect to win and from that regard we’re disappointed.”