How Joe Schmidt handles next few days will determine Ireland’s fate

The contrast could not be more striking. If Newlands Stadium in Cape Town, venue for the opening test, ranked as one of the most scenic and picturesque in world rugby then Ellis Park, situated in what has become the ghettoed heartland of downtown Johannesburg, was stark and foreboding, writes Donal Lenihan.
How Joe Schmidt handles next few days will determine Ireland’s fate

Apart from the challenge that a wounded South African team carried into this game, the big challenge facing Ireland on Saturday was always likely to be in dealing with the altitude.

So superior were Ireland in the technical, tactical and game management elements for three-quarters of the contest that I’m certain had this game being played at sea level, Ireland would be celebrating a momentous series win.

At least that prize remains a live prospect and with the deciding test back at sea level in Port Elizabeth on Saturday, I see no reason why that milestone cannot be achieved.

Indeed leading South Africa by 16 points, having completely outplayed them in all facets of play entering the final quarter, the series looked done and dusted.

It is difficult to explain the impact that playing 1,810 metres above sea level has on the body. Not only is your breathing affected but so too is your judgment. You begin to feel light-headed. While Rory Best attempted to dilute its impact during that closing period, choosing instead to back his players’ fitness levels, Joe Schmidt admitted Ireland’s intensity levels dropped dramatically down the closing stretch.

Given how organised and assured Ireland’s collective defensive organisation and individual tackling technique had been up to that point, it was gut-wrenching to see so many competent defenders falling off tackles when the Springboks upped the pace.

Credit is also due to new Springbok coach Allister Coetzee for making two key changes at half-time when introducing more Emirates Lions, Warren Whiteley and wing sensation Ruan Combrinck, both of whom had an immediate impact before registering a try apiece.

With seven Lions players on the field once debutant second row Franco Mostert and prop Julian Redelinghuys joined the fray, the Ellis Park crowd - having booed the Springboks off the field at half-time - now got fully behind their men.

So inept were South Africa in so many aspects of this game that, once the immediate disappointment of that final quarter collapse is analysed and put to bed, this Irish squad must realise that history is in their own hands on Saturday.

The immediate challenge now is in dealing with the physical and mental toll with Robbie Henshaw suffered a serious-looking knee injury that will rule him out of the final test. On the flip side a number of key players rested for this game in Mike Ross, Ultan Dillane, Luke Marshall, Keith Earls and Jordi Murphy will all be available as will CJ Stander after serving his one-match ban.

The energy that group could bring will prove crucial to Irish hopes.

It may well be the mental scars will take longer to heal having surrendered such a commanding lead after looking the superior side for so long. The quality of Ireland’s kicking game tore South Africa to shreds with their back three and Lwazi Mvovo, in particular, looking hapless under a succession of Irish bombs. It was no surprise when he failed to re-emerge after the break and South Africa benefited hugely from the addition of eventual man of the match Combrinck.

With Ireland’s physical challenge beginning to wane, the quality and intensity of South Africa’s ball carrying improved immeasurably and too many Irish players started to fall off their tackles. The introduction of Whiteley, Mostert and the switch of Pieter-Steph du Toit from second-row to backrow improved the Springbok ball carrying effort immeasurably and put the Irish defensive line on the back foot.

Having looked distinctly ordinary for long stretches of this game, Springbok centre Damien de Allende was transformed on front foot ball and thundered his way through numerous Irish tacklers.

Once the physical wounds have healed, Ireland need to repair the psychological ones by dissecting what went wrong and by highlighting all the positive things that made this Springbok side look so ordinary for so long. Schmidt is just the man to do that. He should be proud of the efforts of those players drafted into the side after the Cape Town test and how comfortable many looked at this level.

The big winner on that front was tighthead prop, Tadhg Furlong. He deserves huge credit for the recovering from conceding the first scrum penalty and the manner with which he fought back to destabilise the South African scrum time and again.

The reserves of stamina he showed to chase the restart after du Toit scored a crucial try to block the attempted clearance of Willie le Roux which set up the field position for Jamie Heaslip to respond with a similar score just shows his quality.

Quinn Roux put in a very good set piece shift for 50 minutes given this was his first game in six weeks while, once again Rhys Ruddock proved a very effective ball carrier and has added impressive footwork and evasion skills to his game. Stuart Olding impressed without quite reaching the impact level of Luke Marshall last week while Craig Gilroy also put in a decent shift.

The manner of this win is sure to have a big impact on this relatively inexperienced South African side given that the scale of the comeback was only bettered by the classic 1998 win over New Zealand in Durban when they trailed by 18 points with 12 minutes to go before winning by a point.

With two games now under his belt, Coetzee also appears to be stumbling onto his best team, even if Elton Jantjies looks far from the finished article. In fact for the majority of this game Paddy Jackson, once again, was far more adept at the basics while his place kicking has also improved massively.

Despite this shattering defeat, there are far more reasons to be cheerful and if Ireland can recharge the batteries for one last Herculean effort in what has appeared a never-ending season, this squad still has the capacity to carve a place in the record books. The next few days will prove crucial in that process.

It may well be the mental scars will take longer to heal having surrendered such a commanding lead

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