After the sobering sight of four World Cup semi-finalists coming from the southern hemisphere, last weekend offered a glimmer of hope for European rugby. The question now is, was it an aberration or a line in the sand?
An incredible Saturday of action not only saw an outstanding Ireland U20 side deliver a stunning victory over New Zealand at the Junior World Cup but Scotland also registered an equally famous win when defeating Australia at the same tournament.
Under Eddie Jones, England have yet to taste defeat in the test arena, but facing Australia in Brisbane was always going to be his biggest challenge. Once again he delivered. Jones would have enjoyed that one.
Even Wales were in the driving seat for long periods against New Zealand in Auckland but, as always against the All Blacks, you have no chance of beating them unless you can sustain that effort for 80 minutes.
They did manage to put in a huge shift before eventually succumbing in the final quarter to a New Zealand side shorn such greats as Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Dan Carter, and Tony Woodcock on a permanent basis.
Despite that scare, under their new long term captain, Kieran Reid, the All Blacks displayed sufficient composure and craft under pressure to remind everyone they still have what it takes to beat allcomers.
On the basis of what we witnessed in Newlands, South Africa don’t appear to have catered for the international retirements and absence of the key leadership group of Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, ex-captain Jean de Villiers, and Schalk Burger to quite the same degree. No country does succession planning quite as well as New Zealand.
It was difficult not to sense a change in the approach and attitude towards rugby since we arrived in Cape Town last week. While the city has always been more European in style and attitude than most of its counterparts around the country, it always enjoyed a strong affinity with the sport even if not quite as diehard as the Afrikaner strongholds of Bloemfontein, Johannesburg, or Pretoria.
Yet the buzzword in South African rugby circles at present is transformation and the desire for the team to be more representative of its population. As a consequence there didn’t appear to be the same toxic reaction to Ireland’s shock win on Saturday as people seemed to be more accepting of the result.
Perhaps defeat to Japan at the World Cup had prepared then for such outcomes. They are even whispers, ever so quietly, suggesting that the revered Springbok jersey is beginning to lose its aura. Who’d have thought that possible?
One ventures to suggest that once the South African squad arrived in Johannesburg last Sunday, there wasn’t quite such a passive acceptance of last Saturday’s meek performance and the team will be put under massive pressure to deliver in the second test.
So many areas of their game require surgery it is difficult to know where new coach Allister Coetzee will start. Once again, as we saw in that humiliating pool defeat to Japan six months ago, the South African attacking game struggles to cope with a team that delivers massive line speed in defence. Ireland failed to deliver that type of intensity without the ball in the Six Nations but Andy Farrell has already addressed that and made an immediate impact on that front.
In such circumstances, especially when their very right to wear the Springbok jersey is called into question, South African teams generally revert to type and attempt to bully the opposition with their immense physicality.
Some of their more seasoned forwards, in particular new captain Adriaan Strauss, Eben Etzebeth, Francois Louw, and Duane Vermeulen were way off the pace both physically and technically in Cape Town. That is bound to change in Ellis Park.
For someone of Vermeulen’s power and stature, to be stripped of ball by Paddy Jackson was bad enough, knocking on at the base of an attacking scrum with a massive blind side to exploit the depleted Irish cover was even worse.
Indications are that Coetzee will offer the vast majority of last weekend’s starting XV the chance to redeem themselves in Joburg at a venue widely regarded as the spiritual home of South African rugby. They tend not to lose there often.
The pressure will be on big time to produce a performance even more so given that the Ellis Park-based Super Rugby franchise, the Emirates Lions, have produced scintillating rugby all season and sit on top of the South African conference. In addition, home favourites Elton Jantjies appears certain to start alongside his Lions half back partner in Faf de Klerk in the absence of Pat Lambie.
For all the hype surrounding Jantjies and his current club form, he is vastly inexperienced at test level having only won his third cap last Saturday. As a consequence, Coetzee has summoned Morne Steyn from France, which says everything about the dearth in quality No10’s plying their trade in South Africa at present.
When setting out on this tour Joe Schmidt would have contemplated exposing some of the less experienced players to the vagaries of test rugby in order to add depth to his squad. He now faces a dilemma with a series win now a distinct possibility.
Of all the tests, the one at altitude in Johannesburg was always going to be the most challenging physically and, for that reason alone, he may still be contemplating making a few changes. There is certainly merit in starting Tadhg Furlong at tight head given how well he did when introduced last weekend — even if his arrival coincided with the substitution of the Beast — Tendai Mtawarira.
Mike Ross can’t keep going forever so that alteration, while risky, could be an important investment in the future.
With CJ Stander now set to sit out the second test, Schmidt can either promote Rhys Ruddock off the bench or switch Iain Henderson from second row and start Ultan Dillane. He is also known to rate Quinn Roux so he could yet prove a surprise inclusion.
South Africa will be better this time out after playing their first test in seven months and will look to increase the physical intensity right across the board. This Irish squad has already negotiated uncharted waters on this trip but there is an even bigger reward on offer now.
A test series win in this country is something to be cherished. The Springboks are on the back foot even if history suggests that a wounded Springbok will always come out fighting. If they had to choose a venue, with their backs to the wall, then Ellis Park would be the unanimous choice. That only serves to make the prize even bigger.
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