Honour in heartbreaking defeat
June 18, 2012
Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll reflects on the one that got away in Christchurch © Getty Images
Europe's finest threatened to upset the world order in their latest clashes with the southern hemisphere giants, but in the end it was a case of so near, yet so far.
Story of the Game
History beckoned both Ireland and Wales as they tackled New Zealand and Australia respectively, but their notable endeavour and bravery brought no reward, while England's latest reverse at the hands of South Africa was equally brutal in terms of mind and body. Hopes of series-levelling victories were dashed in dramatic final flurries by their ruthless rivals and as a result the tourists will be playing for scraps next weekend. Until they can compete as well mentally as they can physically then glorious failures will continue haunt them.
The performances may suggest that the gulf between the hemispheres is smaller than ever, but while it has clearly narrowed of late, there remains a void between the two. It is the smallest of margins, the top two inches, and not industry and ingenuity that hold the secret to repeated success in such showdowns.
Ireland faced the most daunting challenge against an All Blacks side priced at an incredible 1/40 to close out the series thanks largely to their thumping victory in the first Test. Declan Kidney's side tore up the formbook with a battling display brimming with belief and intent. Their challenge fell agonisingly short, with the All Blacks claiming a narrow 22-19 win thanks largely to a questionable call by the officials late in the game, which denied the visitors a share of the spoils and maybe even their first-ever victory in 107 years of the fixture. "We probably shouldn't have won tonight," accepted All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, having seen his side largely out-played only for fly-half Dan Carter to steal the win with a last-gasp drop goal. "Gutted" was Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll's all-too-believable post-script.
Wales once again entered the weekend as the Six Nations side most fancied to claim a major scalp and for the second week in a row they missed out - with the Wallabies claiming a dramatic 25-23 victory. Yet again the Welsh only had themselves to blame, with the lack of composure evident in their first Test defeat giving way to excruciatingly poor game management. With the contest seemingly won and with a minute or so left on the clock, Wales conspired to lose a game that would have been their first success against the Wallabies on Australian soil since 1969. Possession was gifted to the hosts, who backed themselves to conjure the match-winning score and did just that. New Zealand-born replacement fly-half Mike Harris stepping up to land a testing kick and break Welsh hearts. Victory also capped a dramatic day for playmaker Berrick Barnes, who had rushed from the birth of his son just in time to orchestrate his side's series-clinching win.
Few thought that England would be able to level things up against South Africa in Johannesburg and two Springbok tries in the first seven minutes only reinforced those doubts. To their credit, England somehow survived South Africa's awe-inspiring onslaught and found themselves within striking range in the closing moments of the game only to see their hopes dashed by the Boks, who closed out a 36-27 victory.
The home side's power-packed display blew open the cracks in England's armour and carried them to a deserved victory, but the spirit shown by the visitors, particularly scrum-half Ben Youngs, was worthy of significant praise and offers hope that they may yet take something from the series in Port Elizabeth. "Proud but frustrated," was England head coach Stuart Lancaster's post-match assessment, having seen his side battle back into a contest that for a while looked like it would be a case of damage limitation. It was another ominous display from the Springboks, who nevertheless failed to maintain their dominance with a limited bench trumped by their England counterparts. "In that [first] period we showed glimpses of what we are capable of and where we want to go as a team," commented coach Heyneke Meyer after the win, which came at a cost. Lock Juandre Kruger, flanker Willem Alberts and fullback Pat Lambie are among the casualties.
The Boks are an attractive 4/1 to claim the Rugby Championship crown later this year - New Zealand are odds-on favourites - with their campaign set to begin against Argentina, who continued their preparation for their tournament bow with a 23-20 victory over France in Cordoba. A late try from winger Manuel Montero carried the Pumas to a morale-boosting success and they will be confident of wrapping up the series next weekend.
The impressive yet fruitless heroics of their Six Nations rivals somewhat overshadowed the latest stage in Scotland's rehabilitation. Andy Robinson's side provided the only bright spot for the northern hemisphere last week with victory over Australia and there was more joy for the Scots at the weekend with a 37-25 victory over Fiji in Lautoka. The game represented the start of winger Tim Visser's international career, having qualified for his adopted country on residency grounds earlier in the week, and he crossed for the first two of what Robinson and company will hope will be many international tries.
Next up for Scotland are Samoa, who will be fresh from wrapping up the Pacific Nations Cup, while their European neighbours will be up against familiar foes in the finale to the international window. Consolation will be the order of the day, with all hopes of series glory now long gone, but that is unlikely to come easy.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.