Sunday 15 December 2019

Tony Ward: One that got away but series prize remains up for grabs in South Africa

A dejected Rhys Ruddock of Ireland after the Test game between South Africa and Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
A dejected Rhys Ruddock of Ireland after the Test game between South Africa and Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

If ever there was a game of two halves this was it. By half-time in Ellis Park on Saturday, a new chapter in our rugby-playing history seemed all but ready for publication.

I suspect I am not alone when I say I was astonished by what I had witnessed in that opening half. South Africa were every bit as poor at altitude in that first 40 as they had been at sea level in Cape Town seven days before.

So much for the guaranteed backlash and a Springbok return to brutish type. To be fair, Ireland took up where they left off in Newlands, while the Boks quite frankly were awful.

They appeared low in confidence, lacking the fundamentals in shape and structure. This was a South African team on the high veldt looking rudderless in terms of leadership and clueless in terms of direction. I can't believe I am saying that but such is how it was.

Unfortunately, we failed to drive that winning advantage home so credit where credit is due but, as alluded to by Joe Schmidt in the immediate aftermath, the psychological fallout from Saturday's defeat could take some getting over.

Having taken a 16-point buffer into the break (19-3), an unassailable two-Test lead heading for Port Elizabeth should have been manageable.

Even allowing for altitude, and believe me I am, this was one that should never have slipped away. It's still all to play in a return to sea level at PE but I fear momentum has shifted.

Thoughts tend to turn towards home in the final week of any tour and therein lies the biggest challenge for Schmidt on the back of what was ultimately a hugely demoralising outcome.

Had we been offered a first ever Test win in a two-one series defeat before we landed we would have grabbed it willingly but right now South African rugby is in transition, is vulnerable and Schmidt knows it. Ellis Park was a golden opportunity lost as much through our ineptitude in the final quarter when we were still 16 points to the good (26-10). It is essential that is the first and most important point of reference in every review this week.

The tide has undoubtedly changed but there is still enough evidence over the two games to suggest a series up for grabs for whichever side wants it more.

Of the five changes, Tadhg Furlong was a revelation with the unprecedented power in the scrum suggesting he and Quinn Roux combined made a significant difference to that still all-important set-piece. But maybe not enough for Roux to retain his place, with Iain Henderson alongside Devin Toner the most effective combination leaving Ultan Dillane the impact lock for now.

Beyond that, I thought Rhys Ruddock was outstanding and our best player by far. With CJ Stander set to return alongside Jamie Heaslip, it will be either Ruddock or Jordi Murphy wearing seven. I suspect it will be the latter but all four will definitely play in what is guaranteed to be a bruising battle at the gain-line and specifically around the fringe of ruck and maul.

The halves will remain with Paddy Jackson now a very real alternative to Jonathan Sexton. Whatever else, the Ulster playmaker-in-chief has earned the trust of the Ireland head coach this past fortnight. For Sexton and for the national team going forward that is no bad thing.

On the basis that Mike Ross offers little or no impact in a final-quarter crisis, I expect the same run on forward unit as in Cape Town to return again.

So too at half-back thereby leaving 11 to 15 the positions set to have Schmidt burning the midnight oil. Robbie Henshaw being ruled out isn't ideal and Jared Payne might well be moved back to midfield out of necessity.

I hope that is not the case although it could then see Tiernan O'Halloran getting a full-back run from the start. Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls will fill the outside channels with who wears 12 the biggest call of all.

Irish Independent

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