Ireland v South Africa: Ireland ready to climb mount improbable
Joe Schmidt’s men have chance but another win really would be extraordinary
Paddy Jackson during the Captain’s Run at Ellis Park on Friday. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Not only are Ireland stepping into the lion’s den, there they will find the Springboks are both wounded and cornered. If Cape Town’s history boys thought last Saturday was going to be physical, wait until they cop a load of these Boks.
Nor is last week necessarily any kind of a barometer for this. As Jamie Heaslip noted during the week, drawing on his experiences of the back-to-back European games in December, the return match a week later can often flip much of what happened in the first – in style, content and result, especially if something dramatic occurs in the opening exchanges which boosts a home team seeking revenge.
Ireland have to be strong, both mentally and physically, from the start, as Rory Best acknowledged.
“We can’t allow them to get a foothold in the game because if you let a Springbok team, especially at Ellis Park, get a foothold in the game, it’s going to be a very tough evening for you.”
The Boks should also improve. “I’ve been coaching professionally for 15 years and when you first start anywhere it is really difficult to suddenly make things cohesive,” admitted Joe Schmidt, who then cited his first season at Leinster.
“The last club I coached at we lost five of our first six games and at the end of the season we ended up champions of Europe. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get there, it just means the first steps are probably the smallest.”
Hence, he anticipates the Springboks will be “a very, very difficult prospect. For the pride they have in the jersey they wear, for the tradition they represent, the cohesion that comes each time a little bit more when you’ve got a new coach or group of coaches.
“For all those reasons, I think it’s going to be more difficult, a lot more difficult. I didn’t detect too much vulnerability last week.”
Then there is also the altitude and the Ellis Park factors, where the Boks’ average scoreline is 33-22 in the 25 Tests (winning 19) they have played since their re-admission to the world game.
“We probably just don’t focus on it too much,” said Schmidt. “If you focus on something too much, sometimes it becomes bigger than it needs to be.”
While his counterpart Allister Coetzee has been true to his word in affording last week’s team a chance of redemption, this comes with a rider.
“I believe in second chances. In all walks of life people deserve a second chance. They know though there will be consequences after the second chance if they don’t take this opportunity. There are people waiting . . . and I’ll have to look at other players.”
Aside from bemoaning his side’s indulgent brand of ‘Super Rugby’ last week, Coetzee has entrusted Elton Jantjies with the task, above all else, of game management in his first Test start at a ground where he has helped guide the Lions to the top of the South African conference.
“There’s huge expectation for Elton to fire but all I want from him is to take control and manage the game. The big thing about Test rugby is that it’s not about hitting sixes,” said Coetzee in repeating his cricket analogy from before the first Test.
Thus, as well as the heightened physicality and intent the Boks are liable to bring, they’re likely to kick for territory more, especially from their own half.
Yet they appear to have a post-World Cup leadership void, whereas circumstances saw a new level of leadership, allied to an injection of freshness, emerge in Irish ranks last week.
By retaining the experienced core of that side, along with another blast of energy and enthusiasm, Schmidt has ensured a similar mix in his brave selection.
With Henderson in the backrow, Ireland ought to have more options at lineout time, albeit a scrummaging unit that is unproven with Tadhg Furlong making his first start and Quinn Roux– who has a reputation as a strong tightside lock and been lauded by Mike Ross – making his Test debut.
It’s a big Irish pack, albeit there is no specialist openside, but then again Rhys Ruddock did operate at seven at short notice in the win over South Africa in 2014.
The advantage in proven Test-match experience at half-back both with Conor Murray against Faf de Klerk and indeed Paddy Jackson against Jantjies, remains, and who knows what Stuart Olding might do, while both benches have an unknown quantity.
Ireland again have a shot, for sure, but backing up last week’s win to beat the Boks again on their own soil really would be something extraordinary.
You sense, in this 17-Test campaign of all seasons, this one series might go to the wire.
South Africa: W le Roux; JP Pietersen, L Mapoe, D de Allende, L Mvovo; E Jantjes, F de Klerk; T Mtawarira, A Strauss (capt), F Malherbe; E Etzebeth, P-S du Toit; F Louw, S Kolisi, D Vermeulen. Replacements: B Mbonambi, T Nyakane, J Redelinghuys, F Mostert, W Whiteley, R Paige, M Steyn, R Combrinck.
Ireland: J Payne; A Trimble, R Henshaw, S Olding, C Gilroy; P Jackson, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), T Furlong; D Toner, Q Roux; I Henderson, R Ruddock, J Heaslip. Replacements: R Strauss, D Kilcoyne, F Bealham, D Ryan, S Reidy, K Marmion, I Madigan, T O’Halloran.