Joe Schmidt believes now is time for new leaders to emerge
Injury toll for daunting task in South Africa can be opportunity for fringe players
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during Thursday’s squad training at Westerfield School, Cape Town, South Africa. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho.
As a one-off assignment, and certainly as a series, Saturday’s first meeting with the Springboks on South African soil in a dozen years looks about as daunting a challenge as Ireland have faced in Joe Schmidt’s time. The head coach was not inclined to disagree.
“Yeah, it is daunting. I think when you lose players who have the experience you lose a little bit of that core confidence that players can get on to the front foot with.
“I probably have a little bit of a fear that we’ll go into the Test match on the back foot and you cannot be on the back foot against the South Africans.
“So we’ve been trying to build the players forward and they’re genuinely looking forward to the challenge but there’s going to be some real ferocity in those early exchanges.”
There is a curious look to an Irish team in which Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall come into the starting XV and also sees Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw shift to fullback and outside centre respectively.
It might not seem much, but consider the following. Time was when Munster provided the dog up front and Leinster the cutting edge in the backs. But last week’s quadruple whammy to four of the latter’s backs ensures that not only is their only Munster forward in the pack, there isn’t a solitary Leinster man in the backline.
“I think it’s a fantastic job that I get the opportunity to be involved in and you would never bat up for a free hit. You work as hard as you can to help prepare a group of players who are incredibly proud to put the jersey on. So there are no freebies.
“I’ve no doubt some people will say I’ve picked the wrong team. I’ve no doubt some people will say that we’ve picked a team that’s going to lose as they did last time, and I guess it’s up to us to try to prove them wrong if we can.”
There is a strong core of players who are in-form and playing in their natural positions. Admittedly, the untried 10-12-13 combination still looks a tad callow, and the leadership void left by the retirements of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell have been compounded by the absence of Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony.
Along with the entire frontrow, Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip and Conor Murray are other survivors from the start of Schmidt’s tenure, and the outside three are experienced rugby players. So while the only players with captaincy experience are Rory Best, CJ Stander, Heaslip and Murray, so as Schmidt inferred, it’s time for leaders to emerge.
“Over the next three weeks we’re hoping that starts to happen. There are alpha males in your group the others tend to just be part of the group. Inevitably things become ‘needs must’ situations and somebody else needs to step up.”
This prompted him to reflect on the World Cup anti-climax.
“I don’t think that I could ever imagine losing five worse players than we did lose,” he added, in reference to the quarter-final defeat to Argentina after losing O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Brien and Sexton in addition to Payne. “It’s probably my biggest ever disappointment in rugby that we lost that game. It was pretty hard for the players and the management to bounce back from that. This gives us on opportunity to push on without those players and that might deepen our resources a little bit.”
Despite the spate of Springboks’ retirements post-World Cup, as expected their selection still features six of the pack which started the semi-final arm wrestle with New Zealand, and all but debutant scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and the in-form Lionel Mapoe, making his first Test start, were at the World Cup.
“They will be big, they will be physical, they will be well-conditioned, they will be cohesive because they know each other inside out,” ventured Schmidt. “I don’t think any coach is going to make a massive transformation from last week and this week and into a Test match.
“Allister Coetzee has been at the top of coaching for long enough. I’d have massive respect for him. Whatever he does, he’s going to make subtle changes but he won’t reinvent the wheel.”
Hence, after drifting steadily in the betting over the last week, Ireland go into the game as 9 to 2 and 15-point underdogs against the 1 to 8 home favourites.