Ireland had been chasing a fourth consecutive win over the world champions, who were missing half a dozen first choice players, but instead their recent poor run continued as they slipped to a fourth defeat in a row.
And the first international at the shiny new arena, which has risen on the site of the draughty but much-loved old Lansdowne Road, was duly some way short of being rammed to the rafters.
Banks of green seats paid testament to the errors of the Irish hierarchy off the pitch and they were mirrored by plenty of mistakes on the field from the hosts in the opening stages.
Fly-half Steyn gave the visitors an early lead with a penalty before Ireland handed the visitors the opening try on a plate.
Kidney cites slow start
With 17 minutes played, blind-side flanker Smith intercepted an Eoin Reddan pass and powered half the length of the pitch before the unerring boot of Steyn converted from out wide.
Sexton then missed a very kickable penalty for the hosts as their opening night party began to turn into a damp squib - appropriate, given the heavy rain in Dublin.
Sexton finally found his range just before the half-hour mark with a penalty and although Steyn landed his second penalty, Sexton's boot made it 13-6 to the Boks at the break.
A historic occasion had fallen some way short of expectations so far but there was a momentous occurrence soon after the break, as the prolific Steyn saw his remarkable run of consecutive kicks in Tests come to an end at a scarcely-credible 41.
It was a long-range but straight effort that went awry but he was on target from out wide 10 minutes later as the visitors edged back into a 10-point lead.
We expected Ireland comeback - De Villiers
Ireland desperately needed some inspiration and their fans did their best to lift them, Sexton rewarding a powerful scrummaging effort with his third penalty after 55 minutes to bring the hosts within a converted try.
Replacement South Africa fly-half Patrick Lambie missed his first kick in Test rugby but the visitors claimed a decisive lead with 15 minutes remaining when the diminutive but distinctly rapid Aplon scissored with Zane Kirchner by the touchline before racing over under the posts.
Lambie, only 20, opened his international account with the simple conversion and the game looked done and dusted, only for Ireland to suddenly come to life.
The hosts turned to O'Gara and he wound back the clock to 2009 with a precise chip as he and Bowe produced a repeat of Ireland's Grand Slam-winning try in Cardiff.
O'Gara converted and the crowd nearly lifted the new roof clean off its bearings when Kearney crossed out wide to finish off a sustained multi-phased attack sparked by a Jamie Heaslip breakout.
O'Gara had the chance to level the scores from wide out but his conversion attempt hit the post, and the hosts were unable to engineer a chance for further points as South Africa held on to ruin their opening night party.
Ireland: Kearney, Bowe, B. O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Fitzgerald, Sexton, Reddan, Healy, Best, Buckley, O'Callaghan, M. O'Driscoll, Ferris, D. Wallace, Heaslip.
Replacements: Earls for Kearney (75), O'Gara for Sexton (66), Stringer for Reddan (66), Court for Buckley (51), Ryan for M. O'Driscoll (63).
Not Used: Cronin, Leamy.
South Africa: Aplon, Basson, Kirchner, de Villiers, Habana, M. Steyn, Pienaar, Mtawarira, B. du Plessis, J. du Plessis, Botha, Matfield, Stegmann, Smith, Spies.
Replacements: Jacobs for de Villiers (67), Lambie for M. Steyn (61), van der Linde for J. du Plessis (71), van der Merwe for Botha (71), Daniel for Stegmann (66).
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