Ireland braced for one last stand against South Africa at the end of their longest season
Boks have momentum going into decider as Schmidt's men bid to finish campaign on a high
Published 25/06/2016 | 02:30
For 150 minutes of this absorbing Test series between South Africa and Ireland, the balance of power lay firmly in the tourists' favour.
Whether it was battling for almost an hour with 14 men in Cape Town or controlling affairs in Johannesburg, Joe Schmidt's team looked as comfortable as they ever have against southern hemisphere opposition and a historic series win appeared almost inevitable.
Then, the Springboks awoke and for 30 minutes at altitude they reminded Ireland why they had made the trip.
In the 52nd week of their 17-Test season, the men in green go to the well one more time against a team that appears to have found its mojo just in time.
So, the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth hosts a series decider that most Irish fans would have taken before the team left three weeks ago.
The prospects back then were grim given the long injury list, but the performances of both teams have re-set expectations, and while most people would have taken a win of any sort coming over, there was genuine regret when the series slipped from Ireland's grasp at Ellis Park.
Momentum is now firmly with the Springboks, who have strengthened their team with the inclusion of Warren Whiteley and Ruan Combrinck and are showing signs that their power game is coming together.
Ireland have been able to name their starting pack from their opening win at Newlands, while Schmidt has gone for a bench laced with impact, but there must be concern about the lack of experience in a backline that has been stripped of a string of key figures.
The loss of Robbie Henshaw was always going to be tough, but Jared Payne's calf problem is a killer blow.
A week after the Boks took the blunt force approach and marched through Ireland's defensive line, Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall, who have 10 caps between them, are manning the key centre positions.
Behind them, Tiernan O'Halloran makes his first Test start at full-back at the end of an excellent season for Connacht. He spoke this week about how difficult the step up to the international set-up has been, but today marks another level.
When they return from South Africa they'll all be better for the experience and Schmidt will know a lot more about them, but the question is: can they deliver a result?
Key to that is playing for 80 minutes and preventing the kind of fall-off that was seen at Ellis Park.
Ireland have played down the effects of the altitude in Johannesburg, but privately they'll be happy to be back at sea level after they fell apart in the final quarter last week.
Defensively, they began to slip off tackles badly and defence coach Andy Farrell wants improvements.
"Every single game takes its own twists and turns and it isn't just about contact," he said after yesterday's captain's run at the stadium.
"Sometimes it's about organisation or whatever or sometimes defence is to do with the attacking game or the kicking game etc. It could be to do with discipline.
"It wasn't just that we fell off tackles in that last 10 or 15 minutes. It was to do with quite a lot of things merging into one and the biggest learning for us is to realise that South Africa are going to have their purple patch because they're a very, very good international side and we've got to deal with the setbacks.
"South Africa are going to make line-breaks, they're big dangerous runners. Things like that are going to happen but we've got to respond better to those types of situations."
Allister Coetzee has been happy with the progress of his team, who responded to being booed at half-time in Ellis Park to produce an excellent second half.
The Springbok coach has spoken often of his side's need to adapt their body-height in contact to dominate collisions and he felt that they finally got it right in the last quarter last week.
The inclusion of Combrinck means that Paddy Jackson and Conor Murray won't be able to pepper the wing as they did with Lwazi Mvovo, so Ireland will need something different.
Coetzee has been trying to provoke Schmidt and Co into throwing the ball around, but Ireland are not biting.
"We play a smart, tactical game," captain Rory Best said. "We get field position and we can achieve that by kicking it but we're equally adept at achieving it by running it.
"We play what's in front of us and teams can say what they want about our game but we're really happy with the standard of rugby that we play.
"We'll take risks and have a go with the ball if it's on but at the same time we're not just going to run flippantly into brick walls to try and prove a point.
"We have two great half-backs that have controlled the game really well at times, we'll put the faith in them, put the faith in the system and we'll work our way around this pitch as smartly and as intelligently as we can."
For all that they must play smart, Ireland need to create in this final Test as they can't rely on South African mistakes any longer.
The return of CJ Stander adds to their ball-carrying threat, while their set-piece should continue to run smoothly with Mike Ross back in harness.
After he was hesitant to introduce his bench last week, Schmidt will have no doubts in bringing in his forwards this time and Eoin Reddan is likely to get a good spin after Murray's big shifts in the previous two games.
Ireland have made the better start to both games to date and have capitalised on Springbok ill-discipline.
Jackson faded badly last time out, but otherwise he's had a solid series and will want to cement the impression that he is increasingly a comfortable operator at this level.
To do so, the Ulster will need good, quick, go-forward ball and Ireland's breakdown work will need to be at its excellent best, with Jordi Murphy likely to have a heavy involvement in the trenches against Francois Louw, who has been heavily criticised locally and is under pressure from Jaco Kriel, who is set to make his debut off the bench.
The set-piece has been consistently strong throughout the series and Ireland need more of the same. For all that they are inexperienced there is plenty of familiarity between Jackson and with his Ulster team-mates in the Nos 12 and 13 jerseys and Schmidt will hope that they can combine on good ball.
Opposite them, Damian de Allende will hope to continue his physical dominance alongside Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Whiteley, who will all seek to set the agenda in contact.
If they can continue where they left off, then it could be a long evening for an Ireland team whose holidays begin at full-time.
They've been on the road for a year and the end is in sight, but Farrell urged them to produce a "benchmark performance" in Port Elizabeth and, if he gets it, they have every chance of take it to the wire.
Even then, it might not be enough.
Verdict: South Africa