Joe Schmidt has already seen his players succeed against expectation on this tour to South Africa but with one more game to go in this longest of seasons, to win this final Test with the Springboks will be the toughest task they have faced to date.
For all the heroics of that opening Test victory with 14 men at Newlands a fortnight ago, and the continuation of that through the first hour of the second game at Ellis Park, the final 20 minutes of that encounter at altitude has seen the series levelled and the momentum shift decidedly in favour of the Springboks heading into tomorrow’s decider at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
The Ireland head coach’s task is to find a way to get that back and in making the 17th and final Test selection of this campaign he yesterday set out his stall for a bid to add a very first series victory in South Africa to the impressive feat of securing a maiden win here.
The answer to regaining the initiative and not allowing the Springboks to start as they finished in Johannesburg begins with a reversion to what worked so well in Cape Town. Hence yesterday’s reformation of the pack that bullied the Boks and survived so brilliantly when denied the services of CJ Stander following his controversial red card after just 23 minutes.
So, in addition to the return from suspension of Stander to the back row at blindside flanker alongside the recalled openside Jordi Murphy, Iain Henderson reverts to the second row and Mike Ross is back at tight head prop. Of the men they replace, flanker Rhys Ruddock and prop Tadhg Furlong move back to the bench while lock Quinn Roux drops out of the 23, Schmidt happy he gained vital experience at Test level. There are three further changes from the side which started so well there, taking a 19-3 half-time lead and going 26-10 ahead on the hour before fading terribly to a resurgent home side and losing the rubber 32-26.
Key backs Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw miss out through injury, with Tiernan O’Halloran filling in for the former at full-back having made his debut off the bench last week. Luke Marshall returns to midfield after being rested for the second Test, replacing the stricken Henshaw having partnered him in the first game to such good effect. This time he will have a fellow Ulsterman, Stuart Olding, as his partner, the inside centre retaining his place. Provincial team-mate Craig Gilroy makes way on the wing for Keith Earls.
Schmidt will send them out knowing this will be the biggest ask of the series “in the context of where we are right now”.
“I thought Jo’burg was a massive ask,” he said, “to be honest I thought Cape Town was an extremely difficult ask especially after the first 20 minutes. To lose CJ and be down to 14 men having never won here before, I thought it was exceptional. To go to Jo’burg then and I think everyone is really, really disappointed that we let such a fantastic opportunity slip, but I think we deserved to have the margin (earlier in the game) we did.
“We worked hard to build that on the back of very little field position and very little possession. That’s where we need to be able to put our best foot forward.”
That includes the impact the head coach will demand of an also-changed bench. The replacements failed to match the swagger and intensity of their Bok counterparts last week, albeit in trying circumstances, and Schmidt has restored hooker Sean Cronin, switched Finlay Bealham to loosehead cover, with Furlong at tighthead and brought back lock Ultan Dillane to make a difference when required.
Eoin Reddan replaces Kieran Marmion as scrum-half replacement in what will be his 71st and final Ireland appearance having yesterday announced his retirement at the age of 35, while Matt Healy is also in line to get his first minutes of this tour, the Connacht wing poised to make his Test debut off the bench a week after his provincial team-mate O’Halloran did.
“I think we can influence how they play by being a little bit more combative, we lost a lot of contact situations in that last 20 minutes and I think that’s going to be a real challenge for us,” Schmidt added. “I have no doubt they’ll want to start on the front foot as they ended in Joburg. We’re going to have to make sure that we don’t allow them quite as much latitude to get that go-forward through that contact area.”
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