As they chase a momentous first series victory in South Africa at Ellis Park, there will be five changes to the side which won the opening game 26-20 in Cape Town last Saturday, with a Test debut for Connacht’s South African-born lock Quinn Roux and two further potential debutants among the replacements in provincial team-mate Tiernan O’Halloran and Ulster back rower Sean Reidy.
There are long-awaited returns for Ulster backs Craig Gilroy and Stuart Olding while Tadhg Furlong gets his first start at tighthead prop as veteran incumbent Mike Ross is given the weekend off.
The enforced loss of CJ Stander to suspension aside, the head coach could have stuck with the same personnel that made history by winning a first Test in South Africa last weekend but instead has chosen a new-look side to try and make some more at the cauldron that is Ellis Park.
His reasons are in part due to pragmatism as Ireland’s players come to the end of a season which began on June 29 last year when they checked into World Cup training camp. For the most part, though, this team has been selected with an eye to the future and a desire not to go back to the darkest moment of Schmidt’s rugby career.
Last October’s 43-20 World Cup quarter-final loss to Argentina as Ireland, struggled to cope without captain Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne and Sean O’Brien, has been agitating Schmidt ever since. He referenced it unprompted last week ahead of the Newlands Test as “my biggest ever disappointment in rugby” and is determined not to repeat the experience.
Exposing inexperienced Test players to the bristling atmosphere of a Springboks encounter at Ellis Park is the best possible way he feels he can avoid that.
“I firmly commit to the decisions that we made and the players that we’ve selected and I trust that they’re going to go out and perform, but until you’ve actually got knee deep in the water and then waded out a little bit deeper, you’re not quite sure whether you’re going to be able to swim or not,” Schmidt said yesterday of the younger crop of players he has with him on this three-Test tour.
“They’ve been knee deep for a while, they’ve had the opportunity to train and probably calibrate themselves within the system. Now they can calibrate themselves within the system in that really physical environment that trying to live with the Springboks is like.
“I think it’s really important that, for a number of reasons, we find out. I know and I fully accept the criticism of the World Cup. I’m not sure what people expected, losing our five most influential players the week before, and one of them (Sexton) two days before that quarter-final. And as I’ve always said I take nothing away from an outstanding Argentinian performance but I don’t want to go there again.
“I don’t want the team to be caught in a situation where we’ve got players who haven’t been in that white hot environment. And it’s throwing out the opportunity, dovetailed with the challenge, (to find out) can they live there? And if they can that’s got to be good for us.”
The wounded Springboks will no doubt provide a fiery challenge at Ellis Park and new coach Allister Coetzee has made only two changes to his side, replacing injured fly-half Pat Lambie with Elton Jantjies and lock Lood de Jager with Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Yet with a 1-0 lead for Ireland in this series and a milestone already achieved, there is an element of playing with house money with two more games to play.
“For us, it was just a case of trying look at the wider group we had, and invest in them, and I think this did afford us the opportunity,” Schmidt said.
“I’m not sure too many people had high expectations last week. I think they will probably believe, and it could well happen, that world rugby will rebalance itself and the Springboks — the powerhouse that they are — will reestablish that dominance they tend to have at Ellis Park and in this country on Saturday.
“So I think for us it does afford us the opportunity but it also issues a challenge to those individuals who’ve been given the opportunity this week.”