Emerging Ireland fell short in their second match of the IRB Tbilisi Cup as Carl Bezuidenhout kicked the South Africa President’s XV to a 19-8 victory.
Scrum half Ntando Kebe turned in a man-of-the-match display and his half-back partner Carl Bezuidenhout was unerring with the boot, landing four decisive penalties and converting Alshaun Bock’s 11th-minute try.
The young Irish side did well to recover from an early 10-0 deficit with replacement Michael Allen touching down in the second half and their scrum becoming a real weapon as the game wore on.
Allen’s try came when South African prop Ivann Espag was in the sin-bin for repreated scrum infringements, but Emerging Ireland were held scoreless for the remainder as Bezuidenhout’s fourth penalty late on sealed the result.
Speaking afterwards, Emerging Ireland head coach Allen Clarke said: “I thought Rhys (Ruddock) led the team magnificently, he displayed a lot of the characteristics of this group.
“Our accuracy at times let us down, we did create opportunities and we are frustrated by that. We have to take stock from today and learn from it.”
It was a valuable lesson for Clarke's charges in how to pick off scoring chances and close out a tight game, with the South Africans now just 80 minutes away from winning this inaugural tournament.
In truth, Emerging Ireland had enough possession and territory to be much closer on the scoreboard and maybe even pinch the victory with their pack maintaining a high work-rate under captain Ruddock's batton.
Bezuidenhout was in unforgiving form from the kicking tee though and Ruddock and his team-mates were made to pay for that sloppy start and losing a number of breakdown decisions.
The match was played at a high tempo throughout despite the hot summer conditions. Emerging Ireland threatened early on when a neat link-up between David Kearney and Niall Morris gave Keatley the chance to stretch his legs on the right wing.
The South Africans got the edge in the first scrum before Emerging Ireland turned the tables, and that teed up a seventh minute penalty for Bezuidenhout which he confidently converted.
Centre Noel Reid broke over halfway as Emerging Ireland got their attack in motion, and full-back Kearney was another lively runner in the opening quarter.
However, the Irish defence gave way out wide when Rosco Speckman injected some pace and drew in two defenders on the right wing. He offloaded for the supporting Coenie van Wyk to continue the move and then send Bock away to touch down near the corner.
Bezuidenhout added the conversion and despite leaking 10 points, there were some early positives for Emerging Ireland with the forwards rucking well and Keatley and John Cooney's accurate distribution getting the outside backs involved with regularity.
A strong shunt in a scrum just outside the South African 22 won a penalty that Keatley sent through the uprights to open the Irish account.
The South Africans gave a glimpse of their attacking threat again when centre Adriaan Engelbrecht powered through midfield and it took the combined efforts of Kearney and Niall Annett to bring him down in front of the posts.
Hooker Annett then won a relieving penalty with strong work at the breakdown, before Emerging Ireland hit back with their own piece of back-line class.
Keatley used clean lineout ball to send Reid through a midfield gap, the supporting Brendan Macken was hauled down and an unfortunate knock on from prop Michael Bent gave possession back to the South Africans just when the Irish seemed poised to strike.
The Ulster-capped Annett often popped up in the right place at the right time, scooping up a loose ball to launch a counter attack. In addition, it was his great foraging at a ruck which won an important penalty decision in the Irish 22.
Keatley was wide with his second shot at the posts after a good run from number 8 Robbie Diack, the out-half's left-sided penalty just missing on the near side.
A tremendous piece of high fielding from Kearney got Emerging Ireland on the front foot once more, but it was the South Africans who had both possession and territory within their grasp as a breathless first half came to a close.
Jimmy Stonehouse's men reopened that 10-point gap just three minutes into the second half. The Irish were caught offside – another costly infringement – and Bezuidenhout split the posts with a well-struck kick from distance.
The South Africans’ power and pace helped them build for another three-pointer from their out-half, with the Irish defence holding out under increasing pressure.
A good spell from carrying, with David Foley, Jack McGrath, Ruddock and Diack all getting over the gain-line, saw Emerging Ireland press in their opponents’ 22.
The forwards duly turned the screw, flooring the South Africans in a five-metre scrum and a second penalty from the set piece resulted in tighthead Espag spending 10 minutes off the pitch.
A penalty try looked on the cards, but Emerging Ireland opted to run the ball from the next scrum and Michael Heaney's crisply delivered inside pass sent fellow replacement Allen over for a try that his side deserved.
Keatley managed to miss the kickable conversion however, and the South Africans remained frustratingly out of reach with Emerging Ireland requiring a converted try plus a penalty or drop goal to claim a comeback win.
Sparky scrum half Heaney did succeed in crossing the line, but referee Nick Briant had already ruled that Diack had been held up.
The South Africans defended resolutely while down to seven players up front and the Irish decision making was slightly off at times – there was no doubting their endeavour, but they took the wrong option at crucial stages and their opponents stood firm.
Kearney was close to collecting a dangerous punt to the corner from Keatley, while on the other wing Morris enjoyed a good individual battle with Speckman who almost scored from a rare South African breakout in the closing stages.
The Irish management unloaded the bench with promising forwards David O'Callaghan and Eoin McKeon both getting their first taste of Tbilisi Cup action.
However, the brave comeback bid was ended by Bezuidenhout's reliable right boot, making it a disappointing day for the Irish youngsters but one they will certainly learn from as they continue on the road to Wolfhounds and senior international rugby.
Emerging Ireland are now third in the table (four points) ahead of the final round of matches on Sunday when they take on bottom side Uruguay at Avchala Stadium (kick-off 4pm local time/1pm Irish time). Hosts Georgia are second (five points) with the South Africa President's XV leading the way on nine points.
TIME LINE: 7 minutes – SA President’s XV penalty: Carl Bezuidenhout – 0-3; 11 mins – SA President’s XV try: Alshaun Bock – 0-8; conversion: Carl Bezuidenhout – 0-10; 20 mins – Emerging Ireland penalty: Ian Keatley – 3-10; 39 mins – Emerging Ireland penalty: missed by Ian Keatley – 3-10; Half-time – Emerging Ireland 3 SA President’s XV 10; 43 mins – SA President’s XV penalty: Carl Bezuidenhout – 3-13; 49 mins – SA President’s XV penalty: Carl Bezuidenhout – 3-16; 59 mins – SA President’s XV yellow card: Ivann Espag; 62 mins – Emerging Ireland try: Michael Allen – 8-16; conversion: missed by Ian Keatley – 8-16; 80 mins – SA President's XV penalty: Carl Bezuidenhout – 8-19; Full-time – Emerging Ireland 8 SA President's XV 19
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)