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Dublin: 16 °C Saturday 11 July, 2020

Schmidt's biggest challenge yet is also an opportunity for Ireland

There are many fascinating elements to today’s clash with the Springboks.

South Africa v Ireland, June Test

DHL Newlands Stadium, 4pm Irish time, Sky Sports 1

IF IRELAND CAN pull a win out of the bag in Cape Town today, it should go down as the greatest win of Joe Schmidt’s international career.

Without the likes of Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, the Kearney brothers, Luke Fitzgerald, Cian Healy and Mike McCarthy due to injuries, Schmidt has been forced to dig into his depth chart.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt during yesterday's captain's run in Cape Town. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

While the subsequent changes have been welcomed by many and do add an element of freshness to this Ireland team, there is no doubt that Schmidt has been shorn of proven Test ability, huge levels of experience and pure physical prowess.

Most damaging of all is the absence of Johnny Sexton, Ireland’s tactical leader.

Dwelling on those losses is not something that will have brought any benefit to Ireland, however, and they will have been attempting to prepare for today’s clash in Newlands Stadium with a history-making mindset.

The tight-five battle will be of chief concern and should go a considerable way towards deciding whether or not Ireland can compete.

Jack McGrath is a world-class loosehead and will take confidence into his battle with Frans Malherbe, but Mike Ross has a slightly concerning history with Tendai Mtawarira on the other side of the scrum.

With powerhouses Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager behind their front row, the South African scrum is a cohesive unit. Ireland simply cannot afford to give up field position and points through that set-piece.

The maul is likely to prove an important element too. Ireland famously frustrated the Boks in Dublin back in 2014 by standing off and refusing to engage, so it will be fascinating to note their approach this time.

Devin Toner, with his Inspector Gadget-like arms, will be a key figure but Iain Henderson’s returning power will also be of benefit.

Eben Etzebeth Etzebeth is an imposing operator for the Boks. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Going forward, Simon Easterby’s pack need to show a more clinical mauling edge, whether that comes in the traditional catch-and-drive or through one of their intelligent – but sometimes unsuccessful – trick plays.

Toner has a huge role to play in calling the lineouts for Ireland, with that area of their game having slipped slightly backwards during the Six Nations this year.

Etzebeth’s sensational explosiveness off the ground means South Africa can win ball at two even when they’re marked in that area. It’s a shame that O’Mahony is not there to challenge the imposing Stormers lock but Ireland must share the workload.

Toner, Henderson, Jamie Heaslip, CJ Stander and Jordi Murphy all have roles to play on Ireland’s throw and when Adriaan Strauss is lining up one of his usually-accurate darts.

Ireland’s defence will be of keen interest, given that Andy Farrell has taken over as coach of that side of the game after Ireland went without a specialist during the Six Nations.

The Englishman brings an aggressive mindset to the Ireland group, which will be of particular value in the hostile environment of this first Test in Cape Town. Expect the linespeed to be notably ramped up.

Among the issues Farrell will have been attempting to resolve in recent weeks is the habit Ireland showed for over-committing to rucks inside their own 22 and therefore being caught on the outside edges.

Schmidt has been and always will be an advocate of attacking opposition ball on the deck but Ireland simply must be more clinical in their decision-making around the ruck or the likes of Willie le Roux, Lionel Mapoe and Lwazi Mvovo will be streaking over for tries.

Allister Coetzee Coetzee is facing into his first Test as Springboks coach. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Indeed the breakdown battle as a whole will be huge. Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw are both extremely mobile and powerful, while Duane Vermeulen can be a turnover machine. Ireland openside Murphy faces his most demanding challenge yet.

Ireland may not have a clear idea of what South Africa’s attack shape will look like but with Munster-bound Jacques Nienaber remaining in charge of the Boks’ defence there should be some continuity in that regard.

Schmidt’s attacking philosophy has come under fresh criticism in the build-up to this tour, partly due to the attractive brand of rugby that drove Connacht’s Guinness Pro12 success.

As the Kiwi has pointed out, there were signs of an increased freedom from Ireland during the Six Nations.

That was most notable in the clash with England at Twickenham, when Schmidt’s men ran from deep inside their own half and hit the wide channels regularly. A specific game plan perhaps but encouraging nonetheless.

Ireland remain a side who go through a lot of one-out phases off scrum-half Conor Murray, however, though they will need to be smarter in that area against the muscular Boks forwards.

Tip-on passes against the Boks’ blitz, out-the-back-door screen plays through Toner and Heaslip, and a return to previous peaks of footwork across the board would be beneficial this evening.

The presence of Jared Payne at fullback could add a new element to Ireland’s attack. We have seen Simon Zebo used as a second playmaker from the 15 shirt in the recent past and Payne is arguably more suited to that role.

Understandably, Sexton tends to hog the first receiver slot when playing for Ireland but his absence should see Payne step up as a distributor along with out-half Paddy Jackson, who is a beautiful passer of the ball.

Luke Marshall is also a little more comfortable in passing from the 12 shirt than Robbie Henshaw, meaning that Ireland may now be more suited to moving the ball to width accurately.

Jackson’s performance is likely to have a big impact on the contest, both in his game management and place kicking under intense pressure. With 50 caps, Pat Lambie is clearly the safe bet to emerge as the more impressive out-half.

A view of training Newlands will be raucous this evening. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Scrum-half Murray will take plenty of responsibility for directing Ireland, both in prompting explosive forward runners like Henderson, Stander and Ultan Dillane [off the bench], and also with his usual marshalling of the defence.

Ireland’s replacements look ideally suited to lifting the tempo of the game in the second half, with Sean Cronin, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Furlong, Dillane, Rhys Ruddock, Kieran Marmion, Ian Madigan and Craig Gilroy all comfortable in high-paced action.

With Elton Jantjies, Jesse Kriel, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Warren Whiteley in reserve, the Boks have substitute impact of their own.

The midfield battle is an intriguing one. Henshaw and Damien de Allende’s strengths at Test level are the best established of the quartet of centres, although both will feel that this is the type of game they must now start to dominate.

De Allende’s dynamism is a major threat to Ireland but he can make poor reads in defence and Ireland will look to lure him out of the line.

Outside centre Lionel Mapoe has had a sensational season with the Lions and offers clever running lines and pace, while Ireland’s inside centre Marshall will look for solidity and composure to relaunch his international career.

The fact that we don’t have a clear idea of Allister Coetzee’s game plan for the Boks makes this tie all the more exciting. While the master tactician Schmidt will have predicated certain aspects, he and his players will need to figure it out as they play.

The odds are stacked firmly against Ireland for this first Test. To make history, the visitors will need a few moments of Schmidt and Farrell’s finest coaching magic and, more importantly, a sensational physical, technical and tactical effort from the players.

South Africa:

15. Willie le Roux
14. JP Pietersen
13. Lionel Mapoe
12. Damian de Allende
11. Lwazi Mvovo
10. Pat Lambie
9. Faf de Klerk

1. Tendai Mtawarira
2. Adriaan Strauss (captain)
3. Frans Malherbe
4. Eben Etzebeth
5. Lood de Jager
6. Francois Louw
7. Siya Kolisi
8. Duane Vermeulen


16. Bongi Mbonambi
17. Trevor Nyakane
18. Julian Redelinghuys
19. Pieter-Steph du Toit
20. Warren Whiteley
21. Rudy Paige
22. Elton Jantjies
23. Jesse Kriel


15. Jared Payne
14. Andrew Trimble
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Luke Marshall
11. Keith Earls
10. Paddy Jackson
9. Conor Murray

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Mike Ross
4. Iain Henderson
5. Devin Toner
6. CJ Stander
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Jamie Heaslip


16. Sean Cronin
17. Finlay Bealham
18. Tadhg Furlong
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Rhys Ruddock
21. Kieran Marmion
22. Ian Madigan
23. Craig Gilroy

Referee: Mathieu Raynal [FFR].

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Analysis: New Springbok faces Mapoe and de Klerk a danger to Schmidt’s Ireland

Analysis: Irish scrum have a tough job on their hands taming the Beast

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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