South Africa ground out a 19-13 win over Ireland in the third and deciding rugby test on Saturday, holding off a desperate Irish attack in the dying minutes to come from behind for a 2-1 series win.
Underlining how tight the contest was over the three games, Ireland was camped on the Springboks' tryline at the very end and only a frantic tackle on Ireland wing Keith Earls by South Africa scrumhalf Faf de Klerk prevented a last-minute try and a kick at goal for Ireland to win its first ever series in South Africa.
Instead, the Springboks came back from 10-3 down at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and clung on with that last-gasp defense to win two tests on the bounce after a surprise loss in the opening game.
"Very happy, you know," South Africa captain Adriaan Strauss said. "Very tough game, tough series. Happy to get the win. Ground it out a bit, especially in the last few minutes."
Wing JP Pietersen ran on to a perfect cross-kick by flyhalf Elton Jantjies for South Africa's sole try on the stroke of halftime. That canceled out center Luke Marshall's first test try for Ireland in the 16th minute.
Leading 13-10 at halftime, South Africa added two more penalties in the second half to one from Ireland and knuckled down for the last 10 minutes. The Boks had to dig deep to deny a spirited Irish team, which was battering away at South Africa's line for the last three minutes.
The Irish also had a 16-point advantage in the second test that they let slip away. That pegged them back after winning the series opener with 14 men, the country's first test victory in South Africa. No matter the end result, though, Ireland exceeded all expectations after bringing a squad missing a string of regulars to South Africa, and then losing a couple of key players to injury during the series.
The winning margin in every test was just six points and Ireland came mighty close to becoming just the third team after the British and Irish Lions and the All Blacks to win a three-test series in South Africa.
"We've fought valiantly," Ireland skipper Rory Best said. "Unfortunately the last two test matches, the Springboks have been more clinical. A lot of people wrote us off before we arrived here."
The Springboks were heavily favored coming in to the series, and the final test, but took a while to get going in both.
In Port Elizabeth, Ireland dominated territory and had around 70 percent of the possession overall, and was soon in control when Marshall crashed through South Africa's backline for the opening try. Paddy Jackson added the conversion and a penalty for 10-3.
South Africa found its momentum from the try created by Jantjies right on halftime. He sent a cross-kick behind Ireland's defenders and Pietersen swept on to the ball and ran in unchallenged. Jantjies' conversion put the Springboks ahead for good at 13-10.
Jantjies and Ruan Combrinck kicked penalties in the second 40 for South Africa to one from Jackson, but Ireland still made much of the play. They just couldn't break through in those final phases, despite surge after surge, and eventually gave away a penalty, allowing South Africa to clear into touch and heave a huge sigh of relief.
It also gave new South Africa coach Allister Coetzee a little breathing space after his reign began with defeat in the first test and nearly an historic series loss.
"It's a testimony of the character we have in the team," Coetzee said. "Inexperience, yes, but big hearts and big character."