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Schmidt feels 'a little bit of a fear' ahead of daunting Springboks task
The Ireland head coach understands that the odds are against his team in Cape Town.

Rory Keane reports from Cape Town

TOMORROW’S OPENER AGAINST South Africa could very well be the toughest examination of Joe Schmidt’s career.

The All Blacks in Dublin, France in Paris, England at Twickenham, Argentina in Cardiff; this trumps them all.

Joe Schmidt Billy Stickland / INPHO Schmidt faces a daunting task tomorrow. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

A heaving Newlands Stadium packed to the rafters with an expectant crowd, a new generation of young Springboks with a forward-thinking coach in Allister Coetzee steering the ship. This really is the ultimate challenge for Schmidt.

Throw in Ireland’s extensive injury list and a squad of players who have been toiling on the pitch for the best part of a year and it looks like an impossible task.

“Yeah, it is daunting,” said Schmidt yesterday at Ireland’s team base in Cape Town.

“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.

“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.”

As a Kiwi, Schmidt knows better than most what it takes to beat the Boks on their home turf.

The All Blacks did not win a series on South Africa soil until 1996, with Sean Fitzpatrick leading the men in black to a series victory after three ferocious Tests. To this day, Fitzpatrick maintains it was his greatest achievement on the rugby field.

Schmidt’s memories are just as vivid.

The former Leinster coach recalled the infamous meeting between the All Blacks and South Africa in 1981 at Eden Park. Allan Hewson’s late penalty goal sealed a series victory for New Zealand during a Test where anti-apartheid protesters dropped flares and flour bombs onto the pitch from a plane flying over the stadium, in an attempt to stop the match.

Joe Schmidt Billy Stickland / INPHO Schmidt leads a session in Cape Town. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“I was brought up in New Zealand and New Zealand couldn’t win a Test series in South Africa,” said Schmidt.

“It’s the only place they couldn’t win a series. As a New Zealander, if there’s one country that you grow up with a little bit of a fear factor it’s South Africa. They were the team that were almost the invincible team that you just couldn’t beat, especially not in South Africa.

“I went to Test matches in 1981 and I know there was an adverse part of that tour with some of the protests that surrounded it but there was unbelievable rugby played in that series. I still have an image of Allan Hewson raising his hands in the air after kicking a winning goal when it seemed that South Africa were out of the Test match. They stormed back into it and I think it was 22-all but it took a kick at the end from Hewson to win it.

“So, I think knowing the South Africa players is just part of that respect that I’d have for South African rugby.”

The old guard of Matfield, Du Preez, Burger and the Du Plessis brothers may be absent from this new-look Springboks squad, but Coetzee can still call upon six of the starting pack that starting the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand.

If anything, the Boks will be energised by the Lions contingent in their ranks.

Johan Ackermann’s side have taken this year’s Super Rugby tournament by storm with Faf de Klerk, Lionel Mapoe, Julian Redelinghuys, Warren Whiteley and Elton Jantjies all earning call-ups for this weekend’s first Test.

“They will be big, they will be physical, they will be well-conditioned and they will be cohesive because they know each other inside out,” Schmidt observed.

“I don’t think any coach is going to make a massive transformation from last week, this week and into a Test match. Allister Coetzee has been at the top of coaching for long enough, I’d have massive respect for him. Whatever he does, he’s going to make subtle changes but he won’t reinvent the wheel.

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Joe Schmidt Billy Stickland / INPHO Schmidt respects the opposition coaching team. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“Jacques [Nienaber] is doing the defence so I don’t think they’ll reinvent the wheel, they’ll change up a couple of things just to knock us off our stride and that’s a natural thing that week-to-week that happens.

“Six of the pack and some of the ones in the backline remain from that semi-final. Jesse Kriel isn’t starting because Lionel Mapoe has been in such good form, so there’s actually pressure coming underneath some of their World Cup starting players. So, that’s a nice luxury for them.”

Certainly, Schmidt will find out plenty about some his younger brigade over the next three weekends. This is a part of the world where stars can rise or fall.

“This is invaluable experience for Paddy [Jackson] and a number of other players and we’re pretty excited to see some of them go,” the New Zealander added.

“Some of the guys who came in who’ve had breakthrough seasons like Stuart McCloskey and Josh van der Flier, we think they’ve deepened things a bit for us already, they’ve dipped their toe in the water.

“Stuart Olding will get a chance at some stage on tour to dip his toe in the water and remind us of how excited we were about him three years ago when he first toured and the way he played in those Pro12 games at the end of the season three years ago, I thought he was outstanding.

“There are some really good opportunities, it’s great to have a guy like Iain Henderson back in the mix.

“Ultan Dillane, I thought he continued to make an impact right through the season. He made an impact for us in the Six Nations and kept that going. I thought he was super and some of the freedom that some of the players got to play with on the edges with Connacht was because he, Aly Muldowney, John Muldoon, Jake Heenan and Eoin McKeon were working so hard and doing a good job up front as well.

“A guy like Finlay Bealham is exciting for us, he’s still young and he’s come from obscurity a little bit into the forefront of our thinking as far as growing that depth is concerned.

“We’re really excited about Saturday. There’s always that realism there, but that was there last time too so I’m sure the bookies have us very much as outsiders and I can see why, but upsets happen and we’ve got to believe in ourselves that we are capable of doing that.”

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