Ireland captain Rory Best admits it is going to take something special to create history at Newlands today and snatch a first Test win in South Africa.
A record of six defeats in six attempts, three at this evening’s venue, does not bode well for Best and his injury-hit team. Nor does the calibre of the opposition and their air of near-invincibility on home soil.
Yet like the visitors, the Springboks are in a state of flux, the side that pushed New Zealand so close in last October’s World Cup semi-final missing some key components and heading into a new campaign with a debutant head coach in Allister Coetzee.
Today in Cape Town may never be a better opportunity to make history and as South African journalists have reminded Irish players all week, the Boks do not have a good record against them of late, losing four of their last six meetings. That all of them have been in Dublin seems to matter little to them, but Best knows a victory here will take an awful lot more hard graft.
“There’s a few of us in this team that have played in teams that have beaten the Springboks, we know what it takes to do that. There’s also a few of us here that have been beaten by them,” Best said yesterday.
“We know how tough it’s going to be and, I suppose for the guys who are a bit less experienced, you’re trying to tell them that without scaring the life out of them.
“This is going to be tough. There’s a reason that no Ireland team has come to South Africa and won, and that’s because it’s very hard to do it and you need to produce a massive performance and that’s what we are gearing towards.
“We can look back and take confidence from the fact we’ve beaten them in Dublin before but ultimately we have the chance to create something a little bit special and to do that it’s going to take a performance that’s a little bit special.”
With Tests to come in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth for a squad missing the likes of Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Rob Kearney, and Tommy Bowe, not to mention squad regulars Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney, Tommy O’Donnell, and Nathan White, head coach Joe Schmidt knows he would have his work cut out against many opponents, let alone the Springboks in South Africa.
“It is daunting. I think when you lose players who have the experience you lose a little bit of that core confidence that players can get on to the front foot with. I probably have a little bit of a fear that we’ll go into the Test match on the back foot and you cannot be on the back foot against the South Africans,” he said.
“So we’ve been trying to build the players forward and I think they’re genuinely looking forward to the challenge but there’s going to be some real ferocity in those early exchanges.”
Ireland have been found wanting in terms of leadership before, not least when the injuries that befell Sexton, O’Mahony, and Paul O’Connell as well as a disciplinary ban for O’Brien, cut them off at the knees in their World Cup quarter-final against Argentina eight months ago. The subsequent heavy defeat that day in Cardiff has preyed on Schmidt’s mind since and he returned to it again this week after naming his team.
“I don’t think that I could ever imagine losing five worse players than we did lose, you know? It’s probably my biggest ever disappointment in rugby that we lost that game,” Schmidt admitted.
“It was pretty hard for the players and the management to bounce back from that, because we probably felt that we were really well-equipped going into the back half of our pool.”
If victory does prove beyond this Ireland side, then that will be the least Schmidt can hope for from this series as thoughts turn to the next World Cup in Japan in 2019 and the development of leaders for that tournament.
“Over the next three weeks we’re hoping that starts to happen. I said last week before we left that when there are alpha males in your group the others tend to just be part of the group. Inevitably things become needs must situations and somebody else needs to step up. Paddy (Jackson)’s stepped up well in training. I think Ian Madigan’s stepped up well in training as well but it’s something that’s really hard to predict to be honest, but transitioning from training into the Test arena and the cauldron that it is.
“We’ll learn a bit through the next three Tests. I do think that it will give us a better measure going forward. You cannot win the World Cup with 15 players, you can’t win it with 30 players. You need to be at least two-and-a-half deep, hopefully three deep in every position because you’re going to lose some players.”
Strength in depth has never been an issue for the Springboks and has not proved so for their incoming coach Coetzee, who despite losing the likes of Fourie du Preez, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Victor Matfield, and Jean de Villiers since the World Cup has still managed to field an intimidating-looking side to face Ireland.
Yet even the Boks have proven fallible this past year. For all the talk of them pushing the All Blacks close at Twickenham in the semi-finals, it was not long before that, that they suffered the humiliation of the greatest shock in World Cup history by losing their pool opener to Japan.
They were beaten out the gate at the breakdown that day in Brighton, caught on the hop by the willingness of Eddie Jones’s side to relentlessly throw the kitchen sink at them. If that is the kind of special Rory Best has in mind, then we might all be in for a pleasant surprise.
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