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Rugby Union: Mandela was the last South African to get out of jail late; IRELAND 18 SOUTH AFRICA 28.

Byline: Roy CURTIS

NOT since Nelson Mandela was freed has there been such a high profile case of South Africans getting out of jail.

With three minutes to go, the sides level and the ball inches from the Springbok line, the 1995 world champs were on Death Row.

Here was the chance for Ireland to tighten the noose, to empty the lethal injection, to plug in the electric chair.

England and France had lowered the guillotine on Australia and New Zealand 24 hours earlier. Now Warren Gatland's side had the chance to complete an unlikely Northern Hemisphere rout of the Big Three.

Marvellous tries by Denis Hickie and Tyrone Howe had wiped out an early 13 point defecit and brought the men from the Cape, if not to their knees, then certainly to the brink of disaster.

At the end of a brutally physical, error strewn, but wildly entertaining collision, Ireland had the chance to play executioner.

Rob Henderson's massive kick from midfield had trickled right to the intersection of the touchline and the try line. The home side took off in pursuit like a lion hunting down a wildebeast.

The capacity Lansdowne Road crowd were baying for blood. A first victory over South Africa for 35 years was within their grasp.

But, sadly, there was no George W Bush in the Irish ranks, nobody to send the visitors to their death. And so they earned a reprieve.

And in that very instant the roles were reversed. Except the Springboks showed no signs of mercy.

The outstanding Pieter Rossouw cleared the danger, raced deep into ememy territory and set up a closing burst which yielded ten points (a penalty, followed by a converted try) in the dying moments.

"Even now I feel we should have won that game," said ashen faced Irish skipper Keith Wood, aware that the chance of only a second win in 14 clashes with the Africans had slipped agonisingly away.

"It's galling. With two or three minutes to go, it wasn't wishful thinking to believe we could go on and win it.

"I'm sorely disappointed. We had our chances. That was the one that got away.

"We need to reach a mental point where we go on to take that win when it presents itself.

"Still it shows how far we have come. Two years ago nobody would have believed it if we'd said we would be bitterly disappointed at not taking a winning opportunity against South Africa.

"We are looking to try and push the level we are playing at up and up all the time. And we are getting there. We are not that far away."

Indeed. Considering that Ireland were tamely exiting the World Cup at the hands of Argentina just 12 months ago, there was much to admire about their spunky, in your face performance.

This was a thrilling affair, an afternoon that warmed the insides as effectively as the hot whiskeys on sale beneath the West Stand.

Had Ireland produced that winning score, it would have capped an otherwise perfect afternoon for Denis Hickie.

Until yesterday mentioning the South Africans to Hickie was like uttering the word "deregulation" within ear shot of a taxi driver.

But the flying winger put his 1998 nightmare (his opposite number scored four tries in the first test, he broke his jaw bone in the second) behind him with a fourth try in a week.

Hickie was named as Ireland's Man of the Match, but O'Driscoll, Malcolm O'Kelly and Kieron Dawson must have pushed him close.

There is a danger we could start to take young O'Driscoll's sorcery for granted. For once again the 20-year-old Dubliner displayed the priceless gift of finding holes were mere mortals see concrete.

Two breathtaking moments late in the first half illustrated his unique talent and might have produced a brace of tries.

First, he exploded down the left channel, ripping through the cover only for his chip ahead to be just marginally too strong.

Then a stunning burst and pass to Howe set the number 11 free. A certain try was foiled by a late tackle which sent Thinus Delport to the sin-bin where he joined Peter Clohessy and Robbie Kempson.

O'Driscoll could pierce steel with one of his side-steps. He could change his name to Merlin and nobody would raise an eye-brow.

How cruel, then, that his failure to hold on a poor O'Gara pass should gift the Springboks their key second try.

O'Gara had a mixed afternoon (even having the touch judges give a score for a penalty that was clearly between the posts) and was struggling well before he was replaced by David Humphreys.

The Ulsterman brought composure and menace and may now be in pole position for the Six Nations.

Eric Miller, starting his first big game in two years, made several shuddering hits - but injury again hit Terenure club-mate Girvan Dempsey, stretchered off with a severe ankle ligament injury.

South Africa were 6-0 up through the boot of Percy Montgomery, when Joost van der Westhuizen made the most of a South African five metre scrum to burrow over for a try. The conversion made it 13-0.

Ireland's response was impressive. After O'Gara's dodgy penalty, a brilliant six man move, which swept Ireland from inside their own 22, saw Hickie win the race to O'Driscoll's chip to score.

When O'Gara kicked his second penalty on 44 minutes it was game on. Corne Krige made the most of O'Driscoll's error, but the Blackrock man atoned spotting Hickie on the loop. The Leinster speed merchant drew the defence before sending Howe over in the corner.

Now Ireland were poised, but it was the Springboks who held their nerve. When they broke it fell to substitute Bram van Stratten to slot the lead penalty with just over a minute remaning.

Ireland frantically searched for a way back, but in their desperation conceded another try to Andre Venter. In that moment the warden's pockets were picked and South Africa had opened their cell and raced to freedom.

IRELAND: Dempsey 7 (Horgan, 80); Hickie 8, O'Driscoll 8, Henderson 7, Howe 7; O'Gara 5 (Humphreys 62), Stringer 6, Clohessy 6, Wood 7, Hayes 6 (Fitzpatrick); Longwell 6, O'Kelly 8, Miller 7 (Ward, 70), Dawson 7, Foley 6.

CAPTION(S):

TRAPPED: Ireland out-half Ronan O'Gara is hauled down by a South African tackler yesterday; FACE PACK: Brian O'Driscoll shows Percy Montgomery who's boss with a firm hand-off at Lansdowne Road yesterday; QUICK BREAK: Ireland winger Denis Hickie flies through a gap in the South African defence to set up Tyrone Howe's try; HELD UP: Keith Wood is tackled
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 20, 2000
Words:1105
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