Thursday 14 December 2017

Tony Ward: Now or never but Schmidt's accidental tourists unlikely to break new ground

Andy Farrell gives Keith Earls a few pointers in Cape Town yesterday Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Andy Farrell gives Keith Earls a few pointers in Cape Town yesterday Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It is by accident - specifically injury - rather than design that we are presented with such an intriguing end-of-season tour.

Today in Cape Town, a post-World Cup era dawns as the reinvented Springboks, under a much-changed coaching regime, face an Ireland side featuring a new defensive coach in Andy Farrell, with the tourists bidding for a maiden Test victory in South Africa.

Can they succeed in going where no Irish side has gone before? Of course they can. This is the Springboks' first Test since a most disappointing World Cup, despite finishing third (we'd still be celebrating were that us), so this is a journey into the unknown for everyone concerned.

The redesigned Boks under Allister Coetzee don't know what to expect of themselves, never mind an Ireland side decimated by injuries to so-called established stars. So in terms of opportunity over this three-Test series, today is the day.

I don't have the slightest breeze as to how 'Ireland by accident' will perform today, but we can expect a top-notch 80 minutes of intensity this afternoon - and a fortnight from hell could lie ahead.

Cape Town is by far the most accommodating venue of the three. If it goes belly-up at Newlands today, then Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth will be best avoided.

There is an added pressure on Ireland given their perilous position in the world rankings ahead of the all-important draw seeding come May 2017.

As of now we are ranked seventh but there is only a whisker between us and 10th-placed Japan, with the French and the Scots breathing down our necks, and we face a daunting seven-match schedule between now and the end of the year that embraces South Africa three times, New Zealand twice and Australia.

Dropping out of the top eight could leave us in a pool of death for Japan 2019.

That said, Joe Schmidt's line-up for today's game excites me.

It took a circuitous route to get there, but Jared Payne's move to full-back could bring a different attacking dimension. Payne is a natural No 15, and although no-one is expecting instant miracles, and while putting the clamps on opposite number Willie le Roux will be demanding in itself, I will still be hugely disappointed if Payne doesn't deliver on his consistent form for Ulster.

Luke Marshall's presence at No 12 should help Paddy Jackson settle into the demands of running the show at out-half. Stuart Olding's time will come, nothing surer.

Amazingly, just two backs, Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray, along with forwards Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Devin Toner and Jamie Heaslip survive from the line-up for the last game between the countries in November 2014.

Of the replacements, only Rhys Ruddock and Ian Madigan were involved last time out, making for a turnover of 15 players in barely 18 months. By Irish standards that is massive.

And although the hosts are fishing from a far deeper pool it's much the same for them, with just three starters surviving from the Dublin clash - Le Roux, Eben Etzebeth and Tendai Mtawarira -plus JP Pietersen, Pat Lambie, Adriaan Strauss and Trevor Nyakane from the match-day 23. That translates to a 16-player turnover.

With Coetzee coming in for Heyneke Meyer as head coach, the opening Test is particularly tricky to call

Schmidt is again boxing clever when he says that Ireland will look to build confidence from one Test to the next, because for a myriad of reasons, today's first Test represents Ireland's best chance of breaking their duck in South Africa.

The record book shows seven wins from seven for the Boks on home soil, the last at Newlands in 2004.

An Ireland backline without a Leinster presence is most unusual - albeit forced by injury - yet save for Marshall at inside-centre the unit virtually picks itself, although I would love to see Matt Healy or Craig Gilroy on the wing.

Jackson fully deserves this opportunity. Against Johnny Sexton and Leinster at Ravenhill in the Pro12 he produced a masterclass in game-management.

The challenge for the Ulster out-half is to add confidence to his obvious natural talent. If Jackson can develop that Sexton-like presence at the highest level, then Schmidt will have the type of play-making problem for which he yearns.


South Africa, for all the talk of a new era, have named a side with just one new cap, in diminutive scrum-half Faf de Klerk. He is a left-footed bundle of energy, well capable of looking after himself despite his lack of bulk.

Jackson will be partnered by Conor Murray and De Klerk by Lambie. The uber-cool Murray and exciting Lambie bring experience in abundance.

It is difficult to envisage Schmidt deviating from the kick-and-pressure route that has taken his team to this point.

But there is another way, one in need of little elaboration. The Springbok cage is there to be rattled.

Take Ireland to deliver on endeavour but the Boks to make it eight from eight.

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