Tour to South Africa a daunting assignment for Ireland

The absence of Jonny Sexton only adds to the huge challenge for Joe Schmidt’s squad

Ronan O’Gara  tackles Schalk Burger  during the second Test of Ireland’s last tour to South Africa in 2004. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ronan O’Gara tackles Schalk Burger during the second Test of Ireland’s last tour to South Africa in 2004. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

A three-Test tour to South Africa at the end of a year-long World Cup season may be what World Rugby’s global Test itinerary demands, but it is not exactly what the doctor ordered, not least when the medical verdict is for Johnny Sexton to have a shoulder operation.

Ireland have become even more Sexton-dependant since the consecutive retirements of those twin pillars, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. Hence, an already daunting assignment for the 32-man squad which departs from Dublin tomorrow in advance of the first Test in Cape Town next Saturday has become a whole lot more daunting.

Joe Schmidt didn’t seem quite himself at last Tuesday’s official unveiling of the IRFU’s four-year/€15 million sponsorship deal with Vodafone in the Aviva. It later transpired that Sexton underwent shoulder surgery that day, but any announcement to that effect would presumably have taken some of the gloss off the pristine new Vodafone deal.

Luke Fitzgerald’s latest misfortune having been confirmed that day, the Kearneys would follow, and with Matt Healy, Tiernan O’Halloran and Craig Gilroy called in as well as Ian Madigan, there is at least a degree of freshness in the squad, not to mention a record seven from Connacht’s buoyant ranks. So while it’s undoubtedly a challenge for Schmidt, it’s not the end of the world, and the co-opting of Andy Farrell onto the coaching ticket, also gives the squad new energy and another new voice.

Ireland have never won a solitary Test in South Africa. But then again, they have only ever played seven Tests there, and for some reason have not played there since 2004, since when they have hosted the Boks six times, winning four of them.

Professional era

To win any one of these three Tests would assuredly constitute the biggest one-off win of not only Schmidt’s tenure, but perhaps of the professional era; superior even to beating Australia in Eden Park in the 2011 World Cup given that was on neutral territory.

That Ireland have three shots at making history could be something of a double-edged sword, as those on the three-Test New Zealand tour can testify. In that corresponding tour at the end of the previous World Cup season, Ireland produced an outstanding performance in the second Test in Christchurch and with Israel Dagg in the bin, were pressing hard with the scores level.

A big Irish scrum might, with a different referee, have afforded Sexton a 45 metre penalty to win the match, but instead Nigel Owens pinged the Ireland scrum for wheeling and the All Blacks went up the line, recycled off the ensuing lineout, and Carter landed a drop goal.

Ireland could have rewritten history. Instead, that game was virtually airbrushed from history by what happened a week later, and the 60-0 Hamilton horror show probably left Declan Kidney’s tenure irreparably damaged.

Then, as this time, the third Test will come in the 52nd week of Ireland’s season. No wonder Schmidt looked troubled.

“We’d love it if it was consistent across three performances, as long as that consistency is at a very high level,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult. . . We’re going to have to utilise the squad we take, and I think that’s going to present challenges in itself. We may have to break up combinations and try new combinations. But that’s part of the investment side of it and it’s also part of the performance side of it, because if we can get them to work hard for each other then hopefully we can get three consistent performances at a very high level. It will be very tough to do.”

That Leinster, Munster and Ulster did not reach the knock-out stages of the European Champions Cup was a blessing in disguise, giving all their players three weeks respite on the seasonal run-in, even if an all-Irish Guinness Pro12 final would ultimately exact a heavy toll.

New South Africa coach Allister Coetzee has named nine uncapped players in his 31-man squad. “Some of the media comment is that they are going to be a little bit more expansive. I thought Heyneke Meyer had them mixing their game up a fair bit anyway, so I don’t expect anything massively different,” said Schmidt. “There are a number of the same personnel there. We know they’re going to be incredibly strong in the midfield . . . they are spoiled for choice really; is it Jan Serfontein, or is it Jesse Kriel or Damian de Allende? They’ve been outstanding.”

Got options

“Up front we have already discussed them briefly and there are some guys who missed out up front who are incredibly good players; a guy like Vincent Koch, for example, who plays for The Stormers. It is just so competitive to get into their squad, so whatever they do come up with and what they’re going to deliver, it’s going to be very hard to break down.”

“They’ve talked a little bit about their nine, and having three news nines, but Nic Groom reminds me a little bit of Neil de Kock, who plays with Saracens. He is just so efficient, and a great passing game. Faf de Klerk is a weapon around the fringes and really dangerous. Rudy Paige was with them at the World Cup and has had a fair bit of experience in that Springbok environment already and is a leader for the Blue Bulls.”

“I think anywhere they’re inexperienced, they’ve got great talent and anywhere they’re experienced, they’ve got great talent. As Andy [Farrell] said, that’s part of what is the excitement and the challenge.”

The task

“Talking to the All Blacks who were there in ’96, and that’s how long it took them to finally topple the Springbok in South Africa, it was pretty important for them. It made a mark on them. It was something that they certainly cherished.”

“I still remember watching the game and at the end of the Test match when Sean Fitzpatrick sort of slumped on his knees, but was visibly satisfied that they’d finally got that monkey off their back. That’s how tough it is to go over there and win.”

For Ireland to retain a high standard and remain competitive throughout each of the three Tests would also be an achievement or sorts.

For Ireland to nick one and make history, the opening Test at sea level in Cape Town looks the most winnable. But heading to altitude in Johannesburg 1-0 down could suddenly start to make it look like a long tour, all the more so if there are any more unfavourable doctor’s reports.

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