The Ireland Under-20s’ determined challenge was undone by Wandisile Simelane’s second half hat-trick of tries as South Africa won their second World Rugby U-20 Championship game – 30-17 – in Narbonne.
The explosive Golden Lions centre turned match winner for the Junior ‘Boks with tries after 51, 57 and 76 minutes, wrestling back control of what had been a closely-fought encounter up to that point.
Converted tries from captain Caelan Doris and Michael Silvester either side of half-time had Ireland leading 17-12, an impressive recovery given South Africa had stolen a march with Zak Burger’s charge-down try after just 26 seconds and a second score from Muller du Plessis.
However, the injury-enforced absence of some key players was keenly felt when the South African forwards got on top during the final half-an-hour, and Simelane’s trio of scores, coupled with a Gianni Lombard penalty, consigned Noel McNamara's youngsters to back-to-back defeats.
Having lost their Pool C opener to France (26-24) in midweek, the Ireland U-20s, who wore their alternate grey jerseys and socks, were under pressure to produce a winning performance and they got off to the worst possible start.
Scrum half Jonny Stewart, who was making his 16th appearance for Ireland at U-20 level, blundered when his box kick was blocked down by his opposite number Burger and Ireland were immediately seven points in arrears.
Influential number 8 Doris led some sterling defence of the South African maul, while his back row colleague Matthew Agnew and in-form hooker Diarmuid Barron showed their ability at the breakdown to give Ireland a much-needed foothold in the game.
However, they ended a frustrating opening quarter 12 points down, as a poor kick transition allowed full-back Lombard to spearhead a clinical counter attack with well-timed passes from prop Asenathi Ntlabakanye and Lombard teeing up winger du Plessis for the finish out wide.
A well-struck 22nd-minute penalty from Conor Dean opened Ireland’s account and they began to look sharper in attack, building through the phases with Dean and Tommy O'Brien providing direction and leadership. They just missed the killer pass after good work again from Doris, Barron and winger Roche.
Nonetheless, they had South Africa, and out-half Willemse, under increasing amounts of pressure, and profiting from an improved set piece platform, Doris picked from the base of a five-metre scrum and powered over past Burger and Dian Schoonees for a converted try.
Referee Damon Murphy then lost patience with the Junior ‘Boks’ indiscipline and replacement PJ Steenkamp saw yellow for repeated infringements. Unfortunately for Ireland, Roche knocked on in the act of scoring following the quickly-taken penalty.
That elusive second try arrived just over three minutes into the second half, as Doris lifted his side again with a peach of a midfield break and timely pass for classy full-back Silvester who cut inside a defender and evaded the clutches of another one to crash in under the posts. Dean converted for a 17-12 lead.
South Africa responded brilliantly to that concession and the injury-enforced loss of Willemse who had to be stretchered off. Replacement Lulbabalo Dobela’s midfield chip led to them converting an overlap on the left as Simelane went over in the corner. Lombard missed the conversion, leaving it level-pegging.
The momentum swung significantly in the southern Hemisphere team’s favour thanks to Simelane’s second try before the hour mark. Their pack built from a scrum penalty and a well-executed maul, and Simelane gathered Burger’s high hanging kick over Stewart to dot down and make it 22-17.
Showing better accuracy in defence, South Africa were now catching Ireland behind the gain-line. Lombard landed the second of two penalty attempts to stretch the lead out to eight points with 12 minutes remaining. It could have been worse for Ireland as it took some excellent covering across from Silvester to reach Simelane’s hack-on first and deny flanker Schoonees a try.
Disappointingly for McNamara and his coaching team, Ireland were caught out by Burger’s blindside break from a 76th-minute scrum and Simelane provided the finishing touches. Having leaked 18 points without reply, Doris and his team-mates, who remain third in the pool table, will need to right the wrongs of the second half display when they face bottom side Georgia in a must-win clash on Thursday (kick-off 6.30pm local time/5.30pm Irish time).
TIME LINE: 1 minute – South Africa try: Zak Burger – 5-0; conversion: Damian Willemse – 7-0; 19 mins – South Africa try: Muller du Plessis – 12-0; conversion: missed by Damian Willemse – 12-0; 22 mins – Ireland penalty: Conor Dean – 12-3; 34 mins – Ireland try: Caelan Doris – 12-8; conversion: Conor Dean – 12-10; 39 mins – South Africa yellow card: PJ Steenkamp; Half-time – South Africa 12 Ireland 10; 43 mins – Ireland try: Michael Silvester – 12-15; conversion: Conor Dean – 12-17; 51 mins – South Africa try: Wandisile Simelane – 17-17; conversion: missed by Gianni Lombard – 17-17; 57 mins – South Africa try: Wandisile Simelane – 22-17; conversion: missed by Gianni Lombard – 22-17; 63 mins – South Africa penalty: missed by Gianni Lombard – 22-17; 68 mins – South Africa penalty: Gianni Lombard – 25-17; 76 mins – South Africa try: Wandisile Simelane – 30-17; conversion: missed by Gianni Lombard – 30-17; Full-time – South Africa 30 Ireland 17
Referee: Damon Murphy (Australia)