All to play for but, all things considered, tomorrow's third test in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium appears to the biggest ask of the three for Ireland so far.
Not only has the momentum shifted but yesterday’s team announcements confirm the scale of the task.
While Joe Schmidt has reverted to the Irish pack which started the first test en bloc, injuries have shorn the back line of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, leaving Ireland with a 10-12-13-15 axis which has a combined tally of 16 Test starts between them. There's also a potential debutant in Matt Healy covering a back three which includes a full debutant in Tiernan O'Halloran.
By contrast, having Warren Whitely replace Duane Vermeulen oughtn’t to weaken the Boks’ hand any more than the elevation of his fellow try-scorer last week, Ruan Cumbrinck, for the demoted Lwazi Mvovo.
Joe Schmidt accepted this was the biggest ask of the three. “I thought Jo’burg was a massive ask, to be honest. I thought Cape Town was an extremely difficult ask especially after the first 20 minutes. To lose CJ [Stander] and be down to 14 having never won here before, I thought it was exceptional.”
“To go to Jo’burg then, and everyone is really, really disappointed that we let such a fantastic opportunity slip, but I think we deserved to have the margin we did. We worked hard to build that on the back of very little field position and very little possession. That’s where we need to be able to put our best foot forward.”
Noting Ireland only had five lineouts in the game, one of which was stolen while a couple more were stymied at source, Schmidt admitted that Ireland were often left to play with static ball against an aggressive defence, which made it difficult to find space on the edges.
“I felt that we made it work a couple of times in the first Test when we only had 14 men on the pitch and in fact we made a good line break with 13 men on the pitch. So it’s possible but we have to get everything nailed on because of the physical nature of the way they defend and funnily enough they play with the ball in a similar vein,” he noted with an ironic smile.
Asked if he expected the Boks to start with the same intensity with which they finished last week, Schmidt said: “I hope not, but unfortunately I don’t control entirely how they play. I think we can influence how they play by being a little bit more combative. We lost a lot of contact situations in that last 20 minutes and I think that’s going to be a real challenge for us.
“We’re going to have to make sure that we don’t allow them quite as much latitude to get that go-forward through that contact area.”
Aside from his obvious form, Allister Coetzee said Cumbrinck provides a right-footed kicking option. “It’s been noted that Ireland have been kicking down that left-hand side,” said Coetzee, “so Cumbrinck gives us that right-footed opportunity and secondly he brings us an additional goal-kicker from 50 metres out. On top of all that I think he’s shown great form from last week.”
So this underlines his previously intention to make Ireland play differently? “It will be tests across the field. There will be contest and battles and we expect that. It’s the end of their season and they will come hard.
“But we also have our own motivation and ambition, and we’re up for any tests that will be thrown our way this weekend. I’m sure there will be something new from the Irish. They have quite a clever coaching team but we are prepared.”
Specifically he suggested Ireland might opt for shorter, contestable restarts, adding: “I also think they will have to have a go more than in the previous two tests and keep ball in hand.”
“They have a new centre combination so they will want to get the ball into Trimble’s hands more than the previous two. But we’ve got to make sure that we cover all areas. ”
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