DONAL LENIHAN: Time for Irish players to grasp opportunity

It is crucial that the players realise the enormity of what is within their grasp, writes Donal Lenihan.

The most difficult and challenging period on any tour comes in the days leading into the final game, even when the prize is as big as what Ireland are playing for on Saturday in Port Elizabeth.

For England and Wales the task is different but equally fraught with danger, while for Joe Schmidt, Warren Gatland, and, to a lesser degree Eddie Jones, next weekend could prove pivotal for personal reasons.

The coach with most to worry about is Gatland. Having played reasonably well in their opening two tests against New Zealand, Wales have nothing tangible to show for their efforts and are now in danger of suffering a fate similar to Ireland back in 2012.

Four years ago Ireland drew the short straw, having to tour New Zealand seven months after a World Cup. Despite pushing their hosts even closer than Wales managed in the opening two games, the Irish were humiliated 60-0 in the final test.

Gatland needs to make sure his charges don’t meet a similar fate. With the appointment of the Lions head coach for next year’s tour to the same country due in a matter of weeks, the last thing he needs right now is for Wales to be embarrassed, even though he appears the odds-on favourite for the role.

Understandably Eddie Jones has already killed any speculation about the possibility of him taking charge of the Lions. He is only in the England job a wet week — Graham Henry had spent three seasons with Wales before the 2001 tour to Australia — and Jones has set his sights firmly on making England the best team in the world.

He has presided over a remarkable transformation, delivering a Grand Slam and a first ever England series win over the Wallabies down under in the space of his first eight games in charge. He is a driven man and will settle for nothing less than whitewashing his native country on Saturday in Sydney.

Time for Irish players to grasp opportunity

How ironic that Jones should come out last week complaining that England were not getting the respect they deserved from their hosts, with the likes of Bob Dwyer and company looking to unsettle the tourists by highlighting illegalities in their play.

How many times in the past was Jones cast in that very role himself? He could see it coming long before Dwyer was unleashed.

It will be interesting to see what side Jones selects for that final test. Will he reward some of his fringe players who have waited patiently for an opportunity in this series, or risk sticking with his tried and trusted, who have already delivered the spoils after making only two changes between the first and second test?

Contrast that with Schmidt who has offered game time to 30 of his 32-man squad over the course of the opening two tests against the Springboks, with Eoin Reddan and Matt Healy the only players still to feature.

On the verge of the last game of a season that commenced for many of this squad a year ago next Monday, Schmidt’s approach will have helped enormously in keeping everyone energised, engaged and feeling part of the bigger picture.

To win a test series in South Africa would be an incredible achievement and it is crucial that the players realise the enormity of what is within their grasp. Sometimes, after such a demanding season, the mind can drift as players set about organising their holidays and making plans for the weeks ahead.

Some within this tour party may decide to extend their stay in South Africa for a few days and relax and will be busy putting arrangements in place.

If Ireland are to win on Saturday, all those distractions have to be put firmly to bed. You only get one shot at this and everyone in the group needs to be of the mind that nothing else matters this week. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen.

If Jones has achieved remarkable things in his six months with England, then Schmidt too has carved a special niche for himself in his time with Leinster and Ireland.

A series win in South Africa, given the injuries that Ireland carried into the tour, would surpass what England have already achieved in Australia.

The issue now is whether a series win would convince Schmidt to sign off on a high when his contract with Ireland expires next May or will the emergence of some exciting new talent convince him to extend his stay to the World Cup in Japan?

All Black coach Steve Hansen has already stated his intentions to step down from the role after the Lions series. The NZRU are seriously interested in Schmidt and a series win over the Springboks would only heighten that interest.

While they actively encourage their best coaches to gain experience abroad and acknowledge how that contributed to the overall development of their last two appointments in Hansen and Graham Henry, they will not promote a coach to the top job who isn’t in their system. Hence the pressure on Schmidt to accept a role with a Super Rugby franchise back home when his contract with Ireland expires.

Just like the potential distractions this week for the players, Schmidt and his management team need to put every last ounce into finishing off a job that looked well within Ireland’s grasp last Saturday.

Time for Irish players to grasp opportunity

Circumstances outside their control contributed to South Africa’s impressive second-half comeback but Ireland should be better for that experience.

What Schmidt could have done without was the loss of Robbie Henshaw, who was immense in the opening two tests. His seamless shift to outside centre for the first time at international level allowed Jared Payne to show how effective he can be from full back. That has proven one of the big success stories of this tour.

So with Henshaw already back in Ireland to learn the extent of his knee injury, what does Schmidt do now? While he has placed a heavy reliance on Payne’s defensive management skills at outside centre, he must surely resist the temptation of switching him back there now.

While it would be really interesting to see how Tiernan O’Halloran would fare at full back after the brilliant season he has enjoyed with Connacht, it is best to keep experimentation to a minimum at this stage of the tour.

Luke Marshall is sure to come back into midfield after his heroics in Cape Town and it would prove less disruptive to pair him in the centre with Stuart Olding who, but for two serious knee injuries, could well be a fixture in the team by now.

Mike Ross should start this one as Tadhg Furlong offers better impact off the bench. Keith Earls and CJ Stander should also be recalled with Iain Henderson reverting to the second row. Rhys Ruddock was outstanding at Ellis Park and must be pushing Jordi Murphy hard but Schmidt is likely to stick with the back row that started so impressively in Newlands.

This group of Irish players may never find themselves in this position again and everyone’s focus must be on leaving no stone unturned over the coming day to create history.

With the Irish U20 side also causing a few heads to turn here in South Africa with their exploits at the Junior World Cup, Saturday could prove a monumental day for Irish rugby.

Carpe diem.


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