Sunday 25 February 2018

Tony Ward: Schmidt laying platform for future flair with team sent out to combat brawn

Joe Schmidt is making full use of his resources by changing a third of his starting team Picture: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt is making full use of his resources by changing a third of his starting team Picture: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Last week, there was an opportunity to catch the Springboks cold under their new coach Allister Coetzee. Ireland grabbed it, and how.

It was second only to beating Australia in Auckland in the 2011 World Cup as our best win ever.

Yes, it was that good. Factor in the circumstances of being a man down for 60 minutes - and two men down for 10 - in Cape Town and it was a performance of substance beyond Joe Schmidt's or anyone's wildest dreams.

On the back of an abysmal home display, the Springboks are bound to strike back with venom at altitude in Johannesburg this afternoon.

At worst this first ever three-Test series will go down to the final rubber in Port Elizabeth next week, but opportunity knocks to seal the ground-breaking deal today at Ellis Park.

Schmidt understands the psychological implications better than anyone.

The head coach will have learned a huge amount from last week, when he fielded a team that was a long way from his first-choice XV.

One criticism I have of Schmidt in recent times is that he has lost trust in the gut instinct that had served him so well for so long.

However, he is the master craftsman at working out a plan to unhinge any opposition. Ireland will always ask probing questions of whoever they are playing.

Like most people, I would love a little more Connacht-style derring-do, but to do that Schmidt needs to extend his squad, thereby widening the available skill-set.

The victory at Newlands was a huge achievement in its own right, and it was also a very big step in that direction.

An element of conservatism and a 'devil we know' policy had crept into selection post-World Cup - CJ Stander's inclusion in the Six Nations starting side, after qualifying on residency grounds, was a shoo-in, irrespective of injury to others.

Schmidt must be invigorated by the performances last week of so many players that he would have viewed as fringe men.

The New Zealander is the best coach we have ever had, bar none. But he is human and I suspect will have garnered a much-needed boost to self-confidence following the ground-breaking win by a new crop of players.

Today's selection reflects that theme. It is still a clever use of resources, with the five changes he has made.

He has reserved the option to return to the original Newlands selection for the third Test. Bear in mind too that next week's game is back at sea level.

And I can't overstate the effect of playing on the high veldt - it is a huge advantage to the hosts.

However, even allowing for the guaranteed Bok backlash, the momentum is with Ireland.

But if there is even the slightest suggestion that the tourists would be happy to go into the final Test all square, then I fear the worst.

What was achieved at Newlands is already etched in our rugby annals but with Irish foot on Springbok throat, it would be almost criminal not to drive that psychological advantage home, irrespective of the altitude.

All week the talk in South Africa has been about how there's no point trying to bully Ireland, hinting that the Boks will try an alternative way around. Don't be fooled. Today will see a very definite return to Springbok type.

Hence Schmidt's selection of Quinn Roux for his primary-phase strengths - specifically scrummaging - with Iain Henderson switched to blindside and Rhys Ruddock at No 7 and Jamie Heaslip at No 8 in a powerful back-row picked to counter the South African onslaught.

Last week's opener was won and lost at the breakdown. Rugby is still a game where bruising inches determine aesthetic points. Expect the physicality of the collisions to border on the brutal this time out.

I admire Schmidt for this selection not because it is a different 23, but because it is a different 23 picked with a purpose. Of course it could go belly up but you can see the rationale through every line.

I really hope Stuart Olding gets a chance to show what he can do at inside-centre in terms of inventiveness plus that all-important left foot alongside Paddy Jackson.

Craig Gilroy too has fully earned his recall on the wing, while tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong faces the biggest challenge of his career.

If Furlong can tame 'the Beast' Tendai Mtawarira, it will be a real feather in his cap; the same goes for reserve No 3 Finlay Bealham, who has been so impressive for Connacht.

Mike Ross will surely return for Port Elizabeth but Furlong and Bealham have an opportunity make that tighthead decision so much more difficult.

All the replacements can provide impact, even if Donnach Ryan's is of a more pragmatic nature.

The under-fire Coetzee has made just two changes, working off the principle that his team owes him one. On the basis they dare not lose, South Africa to squeeze it ugly.

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