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Schmidt's men will know where they stand after Springbok exam

"There are known knowns, things we know that we know. There are known unknowns, things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns, things we don't know we don't know."

We don't know whether or not the American hawk Donald Rumsfeld played much rugby, but his famous 'known unknowns' quote comes to mind as this evening approaches.


Duane Vermeulen - Age 28 Height: 6ft4in Weight: 17st International caps: 25 International tries: 2. Photo credit: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Duane Vermeulen - Age 28 Height: 6ft4in Weight: 17st International caps: 25 International tries: 2. Photo credit: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Getty Images

Duane Vermeulen - Age 28 Height: 6ft4in Weight: 17st International caps: 25 International tries: 2. Photo credit: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Ireland entered the post-Brian O'Driscoll era last June in Argentina, but that always felt like a phoney war. The Pumas were understrength, a host of players were rested and the two main protagonists in the duel to succeed the great man weren't there anyway.

Phase two of the Joe Schmidt era begins this evening and the New Zealander's side come into this clash with a host of questions hanging over them.

If there's one thing the Springboks are good at, it's letting you know where you stand.

The biggest unknown is how the pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne in midfield will work out, but it is hardly the only one.

Despite last season's success, Ireland come into this game shrouded in uncertainty against an in-form Springbok side who, unbeaten against northern hemisphere teams under Heyneke Meyer, are looking to kick off their World Cup build-up by defeating the Six Nations winners.

The last time this starting XV took to the field, they beat the All Blacks, and securing a bonus point. They've had two weeks in camp together before heading north and the sounds emanating from their Stillorgan base have been nothing but positive.


Not that Ireland have talked themselves down this week, but there has been an acknowledgement that this may not be the most opportune time to take on such a strong opposition.

Since the high of Paris, Schmidt has had his players in camp for 26 out of 231 days. In that time the Boks have beaten Wales, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and Scotland, losing once each to the All Blacks and Wallabies.

The lack of Test rugby doesn't appear to have eased the Irish players' burden, however, and the coach is without a host of front-line players, most notably the ball-carrying duo of Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien, whose loss was compounded by Rory Best's late withdrawal due to calf trouble.

For all the talk of South Africa's conversion to a more free-spirited game under Meyer, they haven't abandoned their thirst for collisions, and Ireland's ability to win those is lessened by the loss of their Leinster powerhouses.

Whether a fortnight of European action is enough to prepare the hosts for this one remains to be seen. The Ulster contingent got a taste of what's coming when Toulon steamrolled them in Belfast a fortnight ago.

Yet, despite the gloomy forecasts, there is enough belief among the Irish public that they went and bought up all of the tickets to see the show.

It is the presence in the coaching booth who will fill the home support with belief. Of all the unknowns, it is the magic tricks up Schmidt's sleeve that could hold the key to an unlikely Ireland victory.

Already, the New Zealander has pulled one rabbit from the hat with the pairing in midfield and his ability to create chances through cleverly designed plays rather than simply raw power will be valuable. The game-plan, he says, will be a simple one.

"I don't think that we've tried to play particularly complicated anyway," he said. "We haven't really been together since the middle of June, we've had two 24-hour camps but that's not a huge amount of preparation time.

"I don't think you can get too complicated and it wouldn't be something we're looking to do."

That simple game-plan will be predicated on a solid forward effort, effective breakdown work and half-back control. Much of the focus this week has been on the names who are not available, but Schmidt has still been able to field a strong-looking pack, even if it appears to lack dynamism.

Prayers will be said for Mike Ross' groin, while Sean Cronin will need to match his ball-carrying prowess with accuracy out of touch and work-rate. Paul O'Connell and Devin Toner should make for good targets.

The back-row is the one that played so well en route to the Six Nations title, and Jamie Heaslip is in the form of his life. The No 8 is up against a world leader in Duane Vermeulen and has a chance to lay down a real marker.

If their set-piece is solid and the pack can at least gain parity in the collisions, then the breakdown will be the next frontier and Chris Henry and Peter O'Mahony will look to wreak havoc on the Springboks' ball.

If they can dominate the ground and provide good ball, then Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will be able to thrive.

Of all the match-ups across the park, it is at half-back where Ireland hold the edge. Both Francois Hougaard and Handre Pollard possess X-factor, but the former is, at best, the Boks' third-choice No 9, and the latter is undoubtedly talented, but highly inexperienced.

Ross' fitness is paramount to coping, but Sexton's mind is the key to Ireland thriving. The fly-half has earned the trust of the IRFU at last and now he can show why they were willing to back him with a four-year deal.

His experience should help Henshaw and Payne ease their way in, but both men bring new options to an unfamiliar midfield.

Jean de Villiers is a world-renowned No 12, but his partner Jan Serfontein is relatively new. They can't have done much work on their opposite numbers, so Ireland will look to pick holes.

"They are two big guys," O'Connell said of the centres. "Jared is an inexperienced international but is a very experienced and clever player. Robbie is experienced beyond his years and is playing really well in Connacht.

"It's a massive challenge for them. When Brian was first picked against Australia he was in the same position. It's a brilliant opportunity for these guys, playing in an Irish team playing South Africa in Dublin, it's just one of the great opportunities in your career and we have to look after them, but they are two big men. They don't take a lot of looking after."

It all starts up front, however. No backline can thrive on the back foot.

Simon Easterby is just in the door, but the new forwards coach wants his pack to front up just enough without getting on referee Romain Poite's bad side.

"I'd like to think my forward pack will have an edge to them," the former flanker said. "But, being disciplined, not going too far across that line, has got to be a mantra as well. At scrum time, lineout time, contact area. . . you can't beat these sides without playing right to the edge but keeping that discipline."

The French official will be a central figure, particularly if the 'Beast' Tendai Mtawarira and the du Plessis pair get the edge on Ireland's front-row.

Indeed, while Schmidt will have concerns about his starters, at some stage he'll have to throw Rodney Ah You into the fray and hope the Kiwi is ready.

The bench could prove the difference. South Africa know all about the big-hitters they'll bring in. Adriaan Strauss, Schalk Burger, Bakkies Botha, Pat Lambie and JP Pietersen are all proven operators at this level and the Boks have 316 caps worth of experience in reserve compared to Ireland's 104, more half of which belong to Eoin Reddan.

This South Africa team have the capacity to play a variety of ways and, with Willie Le Roux and Bryan Habana in form, they're not afraid to go wide or counter.

They will, says captain de Villiers, be playing the conditions and could revert to type. This, he says, is the most important game of their season, their World Cup countdown begins and winning in the northern hemisphere is a skill they'll want to have mastered by the time they touch down in England in 10 months.

Ireland have a little catching up to do in that regard and look undercooked for the challenge.

They come into their first match of 2014/15 with a handful of ready-made excuses they won't want to have to use, but come 7.30 this evening they'll know a lot more about where they stand with less than a year to go until the World Cup.

Verdict: Ireland 15 South Africa 20

Irish Independent

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