It has to be brain over brawn for Ireland against South Africa

Donal Lenihan examines three key areas around Ireland’s first test against the Springboks.
It has to be brain over brawn for Ireland against South Africa

1. It’s the Springboks - but not as we know them

There has been a strong element of familiarity— both in personnel and playing style— surrounding Springbok rugby since they last won the World Cup in 2007 that left one in no doubt what to expect when you faced them.

To win, you had to match the brilliance of Victor Matfield out of touch and make sure you carried a variety of lineout options to circumvent the aerial prowess he brought to proceedings. The du Plessis brothers made sure the scrum was always a potent weapon while at his peak, Fourie du Preez was the best scrum-half in the game.

The fact that wing JP Pietersen is now the only survivor from that World Cup triumph means a degree of uncertainty and an element of the unknown attach to the squad named by new coach Allister Coetzee on Thursday.

His most interesting selections surround test debutant Faf de Klerk at scrum-half along with fellow Transvaal Lions midfielder Lionel Mapoe, both of whom have been in outstanding form in Super rugby.

With just a single cap off the bench, Mapoe forms a powerful midfield partnership with Damien De Allende and the fact that he has relegated Jessie Kriel, who was sensational in his debut season last year, suggests he must be some talent.

The player who will exercise the mind of Joe Schmidt most, however, is de Klerk. He is a bundle of energy who loves to tap and go off penalties and will ask serious questions of the Irish back row around the breakdown. The big question now is will Coetzee give him the licence to run the show from the base of the scrum or will he entrust that task to the more conservative Pat Lambie from out-half.

Joe Schmidt will be hoping for the latter with Ireland better equipped than most to cope with the Springbok kicking game. Should Coetzee choose to follow the free-flowing template favoured by the Lions then Ireland could be in big trouble.

2. Second coming

He may be winning his 14th cap today but having been overlooked in favour of Ian Madigan when Johnny Sexton was last ruled out for a major international— the World Cup quarter final against Argentina— today marks a new beginning for Paddy Jackson.

Somewhat ironic too that beside him in a revamped Irish midfield is Luke Marshall who, with Jackson, won his first cap against Scotland in Declan Kidney’s last Six Nations in charge in 2013.

Jackson’s controversial involvement that day at the expense of Ronan O’Gara placed massive pressure on his young shoulders and, understandably, he struggled to cope.

Sitting alongside Schmidt at last Thursday’s team announcement, once again Jackson had to cope with a plethora of questions from the assembled South African media about the pressure of attempting to fill the massive void left by Sexton’s absence.

Jackson is a different beast now to the callow youngster thrown in at the deep end in Murrayfield over three years ago and today, in a major test against one of the big Southern Hemisphere powerhouses, marks a second coming. He must be sick to the teeth of comparisons with O’Gara and Sexton.

Having already emerged from the shadow of playing outside Ruan Pienaar in Ulster to the point where he is now the more dominant half back for his province, he needs to reproduce that form today if Ireland is to have any chance of registering a shock result.

His ability to play flat and attack the gain line will be crucial and the fact that he is up against a comparatively small out half in Lambie - who despite having 50 caps is still relatively unproven at this level - means that he should not suffer in the physical stakes. With the possibility of rain at some stage during the game his tactical kicking, a strength all season, also needs to be spot on.

Marshall too needs to step up to the physical demands and his new midfield partnership with Robbie Henshaw has immense promise. Like Jackson, he has come on in leaps and bounds under Les Kiss in Ulster and with 20 caps already under his belt, he too has to prove once and for all that he has a long term future in the test arena. Cometh the hour....

3. Tactical flexibility

If doubts surround how South Africa will approach this key opening test, then the same applies to Ireland. In fact both coaches face a similar dilemma in that they are under pressure to adopt the free-flowing, ball in hand game favoured by their respective leading provincial sides, Connacht and the Lions. In the lead up to this game, both were singing off the same hymn sheet when declaring that the demands of test rugby make that approach more difficult to implement.

The one thing that we can take with certainty is that the immensely powerful Springbok front five will seek to pay homage to tradition and look to blow Ireland away at the set piece.

In Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jäger they have an immensely powerful young second row pairing that could dominate on the world stage for years to come. Even then, they have an even more athletic specimen in Pieter-Steph du Toit ready to be sprung from the bench now that he has put a series of debilitating injuries behind him.

Devin Toner, Iain Henderson and Ultan Dillane face a huge challenge here and it will be fascinating to see how Henderson and Dillane, when introduced off the bench, cope. If they step up to the mark then Ireland have a chance.

If the Boks dominate the set piece then the excellent back row trio of Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw— the only two overseas-based players included in this squad— and Siya Kolisi could cause havoc.

Of more interest, however, is how Schmidt seeks to utilise the counter-attacking skills of Jared Payne now that he is positioned for the first time in what many see as his best position at full-back.

Whether or not he was playing to instruction is a matter for debate but Rob Kearney always appeared set on running deep kicks straight back at the opposition to set up a ruck for Conor Murray to box kick. Hopefully Payne will be given a licence to run at space and create counter-attacking opportunities for Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble.

What is certain is that Ireland are not sufficiently well equipped to take on this South African forward unit in a war of attrition. If they do then there will be nobody left standing by the time the third test rolls up in Port Elizabeth in two weeks time.

Schmidt has earned the plaudits as a smart coach over the last few years and that could yet prove Ireland most important attribute entering this series. For Ireland to have any chance of an opening win today, it has to be a matter of brains over brawn.

Japan showed just how successful that can be when recording that shock win at the World Cup last October. Can Ireland unveil a similar blueprint to match that remarkable achievement?

In truth, the odds appear stacked against them.

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