Saturday 17 March 2018

Ireland must beware of Bok-lash in bid for series win

Schmidt's much-changed side can use South Africa's fury against them

Quinn Roux goes through his paces during the Irish training session in Johannesburg yesterday Picture: Sportsfile
Quinn Roux goes through his paces during the Irish training session in Johannesburg yesterday Picture: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

All week, the local media have been lambasting the Springboks about their shortcomings against Ireland, but perhaps it was the words of Graham Henry that will sting the most for this proud rugby nation.

Of all things South Africans pride themselves on, it is their place alongside New Zealand in the pantheon. Losing to a 14-man Ireland on home soil is the latest sign that their standing has changed significantly.

Henry, who will be coming to Dublin this summer to advise Leo Cullen at Leinster, wrote a stinging assessment of South African rugby in his newspaper column in which he described them as "a once-feared opponent and now they are struggling to compete with top-tier nations".

If there was ever going to be a backlash from the Boks, then this is it. Losing to Ireland was never going to sit well, never mind an Ireland team a man down for almost an hour.

Now, South Africa are back at their traditional fortress of Ellis Park and are counting on a combination of increased physicality and a smarter game-plan to reverse the result and take this series to a decider in Port Elizabeth next weekend.

Ireland can expect an angry host in Johannesburg and will hope to turn that fury against the men in white.


For 22 minutes last weekend, Ireland had 15 men and looked comfortable at Newlands. The heroic nature of what followed obscures the memory, but that opening quarter showed a team at ease with its game-plan and one willing to take the game to their hosts.

The Boks came out as they often do, looking more interested in getting stuck in than constructing anything positive.

Eben Etzebeth had decided that CJ Stander needed a personal welcome home, while others lacked the discipline you'd expect at this level as the penalty count ticked to seven in 20 minutes, which allowed Ireland to settle and create scoring opportunities.

Stander's red card skewed everything, but now that Joe Schmidt's side are back to a full complement they will hope to pick up from where they left off when the flanker's hip collided with Pat Lambie's head.

"We were able to play some good stuff and implement the game-plan that we wanted to play," Ireland captain Rory Best recalled.

"It's frustrating to go down a man so early. You do have to alter things. You have to play in a way that maybe you hadn't prepared for, but that's why we're lucky we have the squad we have.

"We have some very smart rugby players that can manoeuvre a team around the pitch and do whatever it needs to make sure you win a game and make sure that the mini-battles within the big battle that ultimately decides the result go your way, or certainly more go your way than don't."

The first battle-ground for Ireland lies in the scrum.

Schmidt's decision to make sweeping changes to his team will have minimal impact on the lineout given Best, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson remain present, but the removal of Mike Ross and inclusion of Quinn Roux means that the right side of the scrum is a new combination.

Roux has a big reputation as a scrummaging tighthead lock and he will have a big role to play in Tadhg Furlong's first start as the Wexford man goes up against Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira.

Best conceded that the Springboks had got the upper hand on their own ball last weekend, particularly after Stander's dismissal, and Ireland cannot afford to allow them access into the game through the set-piece.

"The guys last week set a really good standard and they set the platform in scrum and lineout but also by what they did around the park," forwards coach Simon Easterby said.

"That's the challenge for those guys coming in. We feel that opportunity is one that those guys have (earned) in training to step up to and that's great, that we have the opportunity after last week to freshen things up a little and give guys that exposure.

"You can't buy this type of exposure and opportunity and experience.

"What they've done already in their careers, they'll keep building and keep adding into their little bank of experiences and this is one of those, Ellis Park, doesn't get much bigger. You don't get much more of an opportunity to lay down a marker, and to a man they've all stepped up this week."

The hosts have retained 13 starters from last weekend in the hope that their time together and thirst for redemption bring about a performance.

Pieter-Steph du Toit's inclusion doesn't weaken their second-row partnership, although the Stormers lock has had recent injury problems of his own, while Elton Jantjies is a home favourite and will hope to have more of an influence this week.

The half-back pairing of Faf de Klerk and Jantjies is an interesting one for the home side, who complained of their inability to control the game in Cape Town. The duo have been tearing it up in Super Rugby, but as Allister Coetzee said this week, Test rugby is a different beast.

Conor Murray and Paddy Jackson won the duel last weekend, in part because they received clean ball and didn't look to go every time they got the ball.

The inclusion of Stuart Olding continues the second-distributor model that Luke Marshall thrived on, but adds a left-footed kicking option, while the Ulster tyro's passing game should bring Robbie Henshaw into the game.


As South Africa look to tighten up, they could bring the all-Ulster back-three into the equation, and Craig Gilroy has a real chance to impress on his first start since 2014.

His capacity to link up with Jared Payne on counter-attacks will be worth watching as the Kiwi settles into the Ireland No 15 shirt. Gilroy could well be a surprise package for the Boks, who have spoken frequently about concentrating on themselves.

One area where they are sure look for improvements is around the tackle, where Ireland had plenty of joy last week.

It seemed crazy at the time, but even when they were down to 13 men Schmidt's side continued to pile into rucks to disrupt the South African ball, while they were superior in clearing out on their own ball.

Coetzee has backed Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw to learn their lessons, while he gave Duane Vermeulen as much time as possible to recover from his knee problem and start.

The bruising No 8 will look to bulldoze his way through, as will Etzebeth, du Toit and Adriaan Strauss.

Behind the scrum, Damian De Allende and Willie le Roux have come in for plenty of criticism and need a performance, while Lionel Mapoe could hardly be as poor as he was last time out.

South Africa are bound to have improved, but Schmidt has put together a team built to run and, if the scrum can hold it together, then they have a shot at the series.

That's all they can ask for, but South Africa's brute force might just be too much.

Verdict: South Africa

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