Jamie Heaslip is the only member of today’s Irish match-day squad to savour a test win at Ellis Park and even then the circumstances were quite different. When the Irish No 8 arrived here for the third test on the 2009 Lions tour, the Springboks already had the series in the bag after winning the opening two. Only then, after they made wholesale changes, were Paul O’Connell’s men able to register the triumph their efforts in the opening two games deserved.
This time Heaslip and the rest of the Irish squad arrive with an opportunity to rewrite the record books. A win today would place Ireland alongside New Zealand as the only country to win a series here and even the mighty All Blacks have only managed that once. The other series wins were registered by the combined might of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales under the Lions banner in 1974 and 1997.
To achieve that milestone this Irish side must, first of all, deal with the environment. Playing at altitude can do funny things to the body and you will only find out how you react in the heat of battle.
I recall Reggie Corrigan commenting in advance of the test in Bloemfontein in 2004 how he thought this altitude thing was overrated. He wasn’t of the same opinion after the game and at 1,800 metres above sea level, Ellis Park is 400 metres higher than Bloemfontein.
After about 15 minutes you experience this burning sensation in the chest and start to feel light headed. Most of the time you manage to find your second wind but it can be quite disconcerting.
The physical demands on the body can be intense but hopefully as Ireland have been in Johannesburg for a week now they will have acclimatised sufficiently.
Off the field the atmosphere will also be far more hostile than that in Newlands where the locals got sucked into believing that this, under strength, Irish squad had little or no chance of asking any serious questions of their side. All that has changed now. It is because of those physical demands coupled with the exhaustive toll of having to play with 14 men for 58 minutes that influenced Joe Schmidt to take the brave decision to dramatically alter a winning team.
It takes balls to make five changes to a side that has just beaten South Africa but Schmidt has never been afraid to back his own judgement. This time out he is balancing the requirement to win with exposing another batch of upcoming players to the idiosyncrasies of test rugby in a really challenging environment.
Quite what the Springboks make of this Irish side is anyone’s guess. Having just got a fix on Ireland’s strengths and weaknesses, Schmidt has delivered another curveball by making seven alterations to the match day squad, including five new starters, to confuse Allister Coetzee further.
Three of those are up front with all three rows of the scrum affected. You don’t need to be a genius to work out the first point of attack for South Africa today will be the Irish set piece. That could prove their first mistake. Ireland’s lineout was excellent last weekend despite losing CJ Stander for the majority of the game and the impact that would have had given his key role as both a lifter and a jumper.
Devin Toner was excellent in terms of making the necessary adjustments and he took the key decision to cut the line out and reduce the margin for error. With Iain Henderson shifted to the back row along with the inclusion of Quinn Roux and Rhys Ruddock, Ireland have even more options out of touch today. Roux’s inclusion can be traced more to his proficiency in the scrum than out of touch. Despite the fact that he failed to make the Connacht match day squad for either the semi final or final of the Guinness Pro 12, Schmidt had already made up his mind to run the rule over him a few months ago. It is another big call.
The desire to start Tadhg Furlong against the most impressive of the Springbok props in Tendai Mtawarira has also convinced Schmidt to position Roux in behind him on the tight head side of the second row as he carried a big reputation as a massively powerful scrummager. As always with Schmidt’s selections, the pressure is on the player to contribute in a number of key sectors and Roux will be under the microscope to use his considerable bulk at the breakdown and in defence.
This Irish pack, though inexperienced, has the power and technical proficiency to prevent its South African counterparts from bullying its way to victory even if there will be huge pressure on Furlong to handle the scrummaging prowess of ‘The Beast’. Can he step up and prove himself in the manner Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall did last week? We’re about to find out.
If Ireland can control the heightened impact of that Springbok set piece then they can build even more on the outstanding success enjoyed at the breakdown last week despite being light a key back row forward for three quarters of the game.
Quite how, in those circumstances, they wiped the floor with the Springbok back row to generate eight turnovers to one was quite incredible. Two key performers in Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw were way off the pace in that respect. They will hardly be as ineffective again.
The pressure is on the Springboks to deliver after an inept performance in Cape Town from both a technical and tactical perspective. It was incredible to see just how tactically naive they were and having set out to put the ball in behind the Irish back three and force them into error, they completely abandoned that approach after Pat Lambie was carried off and Ireland were reduced to 14 men. His replacement Elton Jantjies, who starts a test for the first time today, is more of a runner than a kicker and he will be under pressure to deliver more astute game management. Problem is, with so many Emirates Lions in the Springbok squad now, will those players revert to their normal running game in front of their passionate home support? South Africa’s structure in attack is bound to be better this week and they will surely run at the inside shoulders of the Irish midfield and not make it so easy for them to drift across the field and defend the space in the wide channels.
Defensively Ireland were superb last week but, with a new midfield partnership in Robbie Henshaw and Stuart Olding that have never played together before, it may be difficult to reproduce that heroic effort once again.
Olding is a playmaker with an excellent kicking and passing game and that will enable Schmidt to put subtle adjustments on the impressive power plays that were introduced of set pieces in the opening quarter in Cape Town. Injury has cost Olding dearly over the last two seasons and today represents a big chance for him in the knowledge Schmidt is a fan.
The biggest void in this Springbok side is in the leadership stakes and that is difficult to rectify in a week. Jantjies and Faf de Klerk have only four caps between them yet they will be expected to boss the show. If Jantjies fails to produce then Morne Steyn, who only joined the squad from Paris on Monday, will be handed the reins. If that happens Ireland could be on the verge of producing another shock win even if all logic suggests this series looks set to go to a decider in Port Elizabeth next weekend.