Experience and fatigue key factors in selection for first Springboks test
Joe Schmidt says Jared Payne the best bet at fullback with Connacht options fatigued
Jared Payne during Irish training at Westerfield School, Cape Town, ahead of the first test against South Africa. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Joe Schmidt admitted that the Irish team to face South Africa in Cape Town on Saturday is both a mixture of inexperience and experience, along with freshness and a degree of fatigue, and thus hopes that the first test performance will at least generate some confidence for the subsequent two tests at the end of a World Cup season.
His “excitement” is clearly laced with a degree of uncertainty as to how his remodelled team will perform, and he also acutely aware of threat posed by a Springboks team which, for all its post-World Cup retirements, still contains nine of the starting team which lined up against the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final, including half a dozen of the pack.
“They’re always tough choices whether you’ve got injuries or not, you’re always trying to get the best balance between a bit of experience and a lot of enthusiasm especially after a long season. I think there’s a mixture of freshness and there’s a few fatigued bodies there. Some of them played their way through to the final of the Pro12 and there’s a few fellas who didn’t get through there that come in a little bit fresher.”
“There’s a mix of youth and experience. We’d like to think that those combinations in the space of the two trainings we had last week and the two trainings we’ve had this week that we can put together a performance that will be the best we can do.”
Never inclined to make bold pronouncements before a game, Schmidt was certainly not of a mind to break that habit in front of a sizeable South African media presence at the Irish team hotel near the Cape Town waterfront.
“We’re hoping to get something to build on, a platform to build on to try to put some things together that give us a little bit of confidence going forward. You’re never going to be in a situation where everything works and transitions are seamless. You’re always going to have things to work out after that first Test. There’s a number of new personnel and we’re just hoping that we get enough confidence this weekend that we continue to build through the series.”
Schmidt echoed Simon Easterby in expressing the hope that this tour can also provide something of a building block towards next year’s Six Nations and, in the longer term, the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
“It might sound paradoxical but you’re always selecting for just this weekend and the future. So, while that’s paradoxical, this weekend we’ve got to put our most competitive foot forward and, at the same time, some of those people who were involved in that, we think are going to get some experiences which will hopefully build them into being longer term members and hopefully that goes right through to that 2019.”
“We try not to get too distracted by that four-year cycle. Even for us, November is very, very tough. We’re got two Test matches against the All Blacks and a Test match against the Wallabies. I don’t think we could get a much tougher six matches in the next few months so, for us, it’s going to be about making sure what we can build, as I said earlier, from where we start this weekend and try to improve from that as you indication, that’s partially a long-term view but it’s very much short-term once that whistle goes for the two sets of 40 minutes of rugby we play in Newlands on Saturday.”
Asked if he thought that the Springboks might be a little more vulnerable with a much changed side and under a new head coach in Allister Coetzee, Schmidt said with a wry smile: “It’s hard (to say). I’m on the outside looking in. I’d love to think they are, but I don’t think they will be.”
“I think Allister Coetzee knows a number of the players very well. He’s coached a number of them for a long time. He’s coached in South Africa for a long time. He coached last time as assistant coach the last time in 2004, that’s how long he’s been involved at this level.”
“It’s a different group, but that group has now transitioned through a lot of players that he’s actually coached so I think they’ll come together pretty quickly. I know the quality of the player that they have. I think they’ve got some super players, I think it’s really well-known that they have a number of world class players and some of them are based here and some of them they’ve got back from overseas which we thought might not happen. But no doubt, they’ll be there and be fully present on Saturday.”
Asked if he had anything up his sleeve akin to the much recalled Irish win over the Boks in 2014, when Ireland out-smarted the Boks maul, Schmidt quipped: “I’ve got short sleeves on! It’s warmer here than it is in the Irish summer at the moment so I just think the players themselves, they express how they think they can best perform and we definitely build our plan together and hopefully then they own it, they deliver it and I think they did really well in 2014 in that Guinness Series, but time has moved on a long way since then and the personnel are very different both for us and for South Africa.”
While the selection of Jared Payne at full-back made sense, Schmidt shed further light on that call when commenting: “We thought about two other options, Tiernan O’Halloran, who had a very good end of the season, and we thought about Robbie (Henshaw) going back there but, to be honest, those two were a little bit jaded last week.”
“Tiernan came in a little bit later and Robbie was pretty fatigued. He’s had the biggest mileage during the season of any of the Irish players and we just felt it was a good opportunity last week to give him a little bit of time to catch his breath.”
“Therefore, it was a little bit easier for Jared to run in, he was a little bit fresher but we feel reasonably confident with any of those three. We just felt that Jared, with his experience and freshness, was the reasoning for the decision we made.
As was also expected, Paddy Jackson has been asked to fill the even more sizeable void left by the absence of the team’s totem, Johnny Sexton. “He’s slotted in really well,” said Schmidt. “I think that he’s bided his time, he’s been in camp a lot when Johnny’s been in camp so he’s seen Johnny kind of dictating the game, he’s has been the conductor of the orchestra and we’re confident that Paddy can step up and do a similar job. I think he’s got big boots to fill, but I think his feet will slot in quite nicely.”
Sitting alongside Schmidt was Jackson himself, and insomuch as he allows himself to, the Ulster out-half conveyed his delight at being recalled, albeit in his own low-key way. “I know I’m stepping into big shoes like Joe said and I think I’ve around long enough to know how things work and I’ve had a chance to step back and see how Joe and Johnny orchestrate things. I’ve been waiting for a chance and now I’ve got it. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s exciting times for me.”
“I’m delighted to get the start. It’s been a while. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for this chance and I’m so grateful it’s come, it’s just a great opportunity. Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to put on that green jersey so this is another chance for me and I’m just really looking forward to it.”
“It’s all well having a decent season with the province and I think it’s a big step up so I will take confident from that but also there’s gonna be nerves and excitement, it’s a new challenge and it’s international rugby now so it’s a completely different ball game. From that point of view, I’m looking forward to testing myself in that environment.
As to the possibility of rain affecting the game, Jackson said dryly: “We’re pretty used to rain back home so, I think from that point of view, we’re prepared for whatever weather we get. I think ideally it would be nice to play in a bit of dry weather and play a bit of rugby I think.”
“Obviously it will make things a little bit tougher in terms of using the ball and if you get a bit of grease on the pith, both teams might decide to play a bit more territory so I think that’s something that you plan how you want to play during the week and, depending on the weather, you have to make a decision on whether that changes your decision or not.”
With Jackson at the helm, this revamped Irish team are seeking to become the first to beat the Springboks in South Africa. “We’re aware of it,” said Jackson, “but at the same time, there’s a lot of guys here getting a chance and I think the opportunity to go up against the Springboks at home or away, it’s such a great opportunity. We’re aware of it, but I don’t think that will change the way we approach the game. We need to be physical, we need to be smart and I think that’s how we’re going to approach the game as a team.”