Thursday 12 December 2019

Alan Quinlan: Ireland need to show a head for heights before they reach their peak

Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Dizzy heights these for Joe Schmidt's Ireland. But no sign of vertigo. Yet. Ellis Park is the Everest of rugby. At nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, it is not only the scenery which can take your breath away.

Some people say Everest is not as formidable a peak any more thanks to advances in technology and science. Maybe. It remains the ultimate test, though.

Johannesburg has historically been the same for anyone trying to conquer South Africa. That is why the Boks always used to bring the All Blacks to Joburg. In nearly a century, they lost just three times to their fierce rivals here.

Most famously, they won the 1995 World Cup final here. Something else may have caught in the All Black throats that day; perhaps we will never know.

But this particular summit is losing its formidable aura; the All Blacks have won twice here in the last three Tri-Nations series.

South Africa are in the throes of a transition crisis. They have lost to Japan at a World Cup. Lost to Argentina for the first time ever. At home. Now Ireland. A new coaching team hasn't stopped the rot. Yet.

One thing is certain, though. South Africa have lost their aura, for now. They will always retain respect. But that sense of being a formidable, indomitable bullying outfit, like the one that battered us here 12 years ago? It's not there at the moment.

The rarefied air won't affect Ireland. The Irish nutritionists and fitness guys have prepared the team to pre-empt any effects of altitude.

When we lost here in 2004, the altitude didn't beat us; the Boks did. We'd had our chance in the first Test that year against a team with a new coach, trying out a new expansive style but in a team missing a raft of players through injury. . . If it sounds familiar, it is.

The difference is that last week, Ireland seized their moment. Even with 14 men. It was a historic first and it meant that even if we lose this weekend, the series will still be alive.

Ireland are chasing history and history is chasing them; they have won their first match on South African soil. Only the Lions have won a series here in modern times. New goals.

Schmidt has been really shrewd with his selection. He might have made a few more changes but five probably gets the balance right; ten new bodies overall. They can throw the kitchen sink at South Africa and still know they have a chance to win the series next week.

And every single player on tour will want to be part of that. He is obviously worried about the Beast - Tendai Mtawarira - as he brings in a tighthead prop and tighthead lock.

Tadhg Furlong deserves his opportunity; the first of many for the Wexford man. And think of how hungry Dave Kilcoyne is going to be when he comes on.

This is huge for South African-born Connacht lock Quinn Roux. If you thought last week was hostile, the is even more intimidating. But these guys are so mentally strong now that he can cope. There will be a venom spouting from the home support. He will need to block it out.

Paddy Jackson will be buzzing. Finally, he got his chance. The coach backed him. He delivered. And he can do it again.

It was insulting for Allister Coetzee to say Ireland didn't play any rugby. They mixed it really well and will have to do so again.

Maybe it is because Coetzee is under huge pressure. They under-estimated Ireland. The newspapers here are all about "Bok flops". They don't know much about us.

His side will probably revert to type this week, the ten-man power game because they were caught between two stools last week. Their attack was stagnant and they couldn't get anything going in tight.

Ireland must replicate their character and resilience just seven days later; they had a cause last week too.

Andy Farrell has told me they need to get the balance right in terms of their emotion in defence. They cannot let themselves get too hyped up. Any team can be up for it. But you must be in control.

They will be met by a more physically aggressive approach. But you can't beat the heads of people any more. Ireland won't be intimidated.

They need to be sharp in how they use the ball, resource the breakdown intelligently, be clever in their tackle technique. And still hit them with everything they have.

You won't want to let them build phase after phase. Ireland will put pressure on to make those mistakes and that's what Farrell wants.

Line-speed and a desire to defend. Intelligence on and off the ball. Ireland won't be shocked by the aggressive approach. The Boks are hurting, they're wounded, they will come out firing. Ireland must match that, get into the game early as they did last week.

How good can the Springboks be? We have no idea - but they will be better. And so Ireland will need to be better too. This is not a weakened team.

Attitude, not altitude.

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