17 May, 07:00
Three crisply-struck penalties from Jonathan Sexton rewarded some great industry from the likes of man-of-the-match Mike McCarthy, Cian Healy and Chris Henry.
Sexton added a fourth kick for a 12-3 advantage at half-time, however the Springboks turned it around in the second period by notching 13 points without reply.
Ruan Pienaar, so often a match winner for Ulster, provided the turning point for his side as he dived over from a ruck for a converted 45th minute try.
The only try of the contest came with Heaslip in the sin-bin and the 'Boks nipped ahead at 13-12 just before the number 8 resumed.
Patrick Lambie's fourth successful kick at goal proved to be the clincher as injury-hit Ireland opened their November run with a defeat that will rankle after what was a promising first 40 minutes.
The opening exchanges were of a typically bruising nature, and young full-back Simon Zebo had a confidence-boosting high take in the first minute.
The tactical kicking of the half-backs was just as pivotal as the battle for supremacy up front where Ireland's debutant hooker Richardt Strauss was in the wars early on.
He required treatment for a facial wound and as his replacement Sean Cronin tried to find Heaslip at a close-in lineout, interference from Francois Louw produced a penalty which Sexton slotted from the 22.
Tommy Bowe, winning his 50th Ireland cap, Gordon D'Arcy and Henry all made positive impacts in terms of ball-carrying, with McCarthy and the tigerish Peter O'Mahony setting the tone at the breakdown.
Sexton doubled Ireland's lead in the 11th minute, cracking a long range penalty through the posts after the Springboks were caught offside five metres inside their half.
A powerful burst over halfway from Adriaan Strauss got the visitors on the move as did a smart counter from JP Pietersen, who profited from a lineout steal by powerhouse lock Eben Etzebeth.
Lambie landed an 18th minute penalty for the 'Boks, awarded against McCarthy for going offside, but the Connacht forward helped to claw back three points for Ireland.
He got over the gain-line on a leg-pumping run up the right, with South African captain Jean de Villiers failing to retreat quickly enough and Sexton mopped up with another fine strike from 40 metres out.
The ferocity of Ireland's tackling and forceful play at the breakdown were key factors in their solid start, allied to some clever kicking from Conor Murray and Sexton.
Lambie sent a penalty wide from just inside the Irish half before Declan Kidney's men made encouraging headway in a couple of attacks.
Keith Earls unfortunately lacked support as he left Francois Hougaard for dead near the right touchline, while a pacy break saw the impressive Bowe and Zebo take Ireland up to the South African 22.
Healy and Heaslip added some grunt closer in to the posts and the net result was Sexton's fourth successful penalty with nine minutes left before the break.
A degree of niggle crept into the game, particularly after South African winger Pietersen saw yellow for a shoulder charge on Henry as the Ulster back rower prepared to collect a restart.
Pressure from Ireland in the scrum took the Boks' penalties conceded tally to 10, but the home side failed to score during Pietersen's time off the pitch
A powerful maul and snappy peel away from Strauss provided quick ball on the South African 22, but when it was passed wide through the backs Earls was unable to combine with Bowe.
Sexton suffered his first penalty miss in the last minute of the half and Pienaar was short with a monster place-kick in added time.
Ireland were on the back foot as the 'Boks improved on the resumption, no doubt fired up by head coach Heyneke Meyer's half-time words.
With influential loosehead Healy forced off briefly, the 23-year-old David Kilcoyne came on to make his debut in the Irish front row.
However, the South African forwards mauled onwards with menace, upping it in the physical stakes and an infringement near the whitewash by Heaslip earned him a yellow card.
Ireland could not hold out as the 'Boks wrestled their way infield and Pienaar dummied off the back of a ruck to plunge over past Donnacha Ryan, with television match official Giulio De Santis confirming the grounding.
Lambie converted and the 'Boks held the momentum, using their maul to good effect, but McCarthy, O'Mahony and Healy came up with some vital challenges in the 22.
O'Mahony was whistled up for not releasing after tackling Hougaard. From a central position, Lambie stepped up to kick the tourists ahead for the first time in the 53rd minute.
Thriving on a direct style of play and better execution, Meyer's charges certainly came to the fore in a productive third quarter for themm.
They also succeeded in suffocating Ireland's main ball carriers, closing down the space despite good work on the ball from the hard-running D'Arcy and Zebo.
Some neat footwork from Earls helped him wriggle free to set up a 52-metre penalty which Sexton took on, yet his kick dropped into Pienaar's arms under the crossbar.
There was no lack of intensity from this young and inexperienced Irish side, but the margin was crucially widen to four points when Lambie right-footed a penalty won by Leinster's Heinke van der Merwe in a scrum.
Ireland continued to put their bodies on the line and the endeavour and energy was high as they hunted for a late reply. They failed to get in sight of the try-line though as the composed 'Boks prevailed in a finely-balanced clash.
Kidney's panel of players will take what they can from the Series opener into their next two games against Fiji and Argentina in the coming weeks.
Strauss, Kilcoyne, Iain Henderson and the recently-arrived Michael Bent all made their debuts at Test level against South Africa, while it was a first home international start for a further three players - McCarthy, Henry and Zebo.
|Ireland Score Card|
|South Africa Score Card|