Brains will be more important than brawn when the Springboks host Ireland in a potentially series-deciding clash at Ellis Park on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
‘Beware the Boklash'. These days, it’s a statement as common as a post-defeat lament about underestimating a minnow or an understrength opponent.
Those who have followed the Boks closely over the past 12 months will be all too familiar with the narrative. Last year, the Boks underestimated Argentina, and went on to lose 37-25 to the Pumas in Durban. The following week, they bounced back to win 26-12 in Buenos Aires.
At the 2015 World Cup, the Boks failed to take Japan seriously in the lead-up to their tournament opener in Brighton. They went on to lose 34-32 to the Brave Blossoms. The following week, the Boks bounced back to beat Samoa 46-6 in Birmingham.
And so, on to the next installment of this sorry saga.
The Boks were tactically and mentally exposed in the recent Test against Ireland at Newlands, and lost 26-20. Many will be hoping that Allister Coetzee’s side can bounce back at Ellis Park this Saturday and level the three-Test series.
There is, of course, no guarantee that the Boks will bounce back.
A week ago, Ireland had never beaten the Boks in South Africa. Most spoke of the visiting team’s modest ambitions due to their poor 2016 Six Nations campaign as well as the loss of several world-class players to injuries.
Few would have expected Ireland to claim a historic win at Newlands. Even fewer would have bet on Ireland winning with 14 men on the field.
Some might say that the Boks will be better prepared ahead of the second Test. They will say that there is no chance of another Irish ambush.
To that, I can only respond with a series of questions: What if CJ Stander was not red-carded after 23 minutes? Have we really seen what Ireland can do in this series? If they maintain their discipline and keep 15 men on the park, will they bring something completely new to the contest?
For Coetzee and his charges, it is a worrying thought. While Ireland completely surprised the Boks with their physicality and tactics at Newlands, there’s a chance that the visitors could move up a gear at Ellis Park.
Given what’s on the line, the Boks will be desperate for any sort of victory. No individual home nation has ever won a Test series in South Africa. It’s been 19 years since the Boks lost a Test series to any opponent.
The pressure on this Bok side to win is massive. Any talk of playing a brand of rugby that’s more entertaining than effective is laughable. I doubt that any of the hardened South African fans who attend the game at Ellis Park this Saturday will applaud a beautiful loss.
That said, the Boks must endeavour to vary their play. Coetzee himself has highlighted the decision-making of the halfback and midfield combinations.
The Boks have to produce a more imposing ball-in-hand performance. What the likes of Faf de Klerk, Elton Jantjies, Willie le Roux and Morné Steyn later in the contest need to show is a greater appreciation for the game situation. Their tactical-kicking execution will be under scrutiny, but so too will the timing of when to kick for field position and when to employ a more attacking probe.
Joe Schmidt has made five changes to his starting team as well as a positional switch in the pack. The visitors will be without Stander, who is serving a suspension for his challenge on Pat Lambie at Newlands. Nevertheless, Ireland remain in a strong position.
Ireland have remained humble in the wake of that great victory at Newlands. They will know that an even greater win could be in the offing, if not in Johannesburg this weekend, then perhaps in Port Elizabeth next Saturday.
There was a public outcry after the Boks’ loss at Newlands. The pressure has continued to build on the Boks in the lead-up to the second Test.
Don’t be surprised if Ireland try to take advantage of this at Ellis Park on Saturday. If they succeed in unsettling the Boks, their dreams of a series win could be realised.
Coetzee faces a challenge in motivating his charges. A more physical effort is needed after the limp showing at Newlands. At the same time, the Boks need to be smarter, both in terms of their aggression at the collisions and in their tactical decision-making.
Ireland will be up for a fight. On the evidence of last week’s 14-man – and at one stage 13-man – showing, it’s plain to see that they won’t be easily felled. Schmidt’s decision to bring in some fresh legs could also pay dividends.
The Bok senior players will be under scrutiny. Adriaan Strauss disappointed in his first game as skipper. Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen weren’t at their imposing best.
The Boks won’t bounce back if these players fail to fire. They won’t win at Ellis Park if their halfbacks and midfielders succumb to the pressure and battle to execute the game plan.
Like many, I am expecting the script to play out as it usually does with the Boks bouncing back to claim an ugly yet important win.
This chapter of the story may be slightly different, as the Boks will be up against a spirited and highly motivated Ireland team that possess a world-class coach.
A Bok win is not a given this Saturday. A positive result will be hard-earned.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Boks 16, Ireland 6, Draw 1
In Johannesburg: N/A
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Trevor Nyakane,18 Julian Redelinghuys, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Warren Whiteley, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Morné Steyn, 23 Ruan Combrinck.
Ireland – 15 Jared Payne, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Robbie Henshaw,12 Stuart Olding, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Rhys Ruddock, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Quinn Roux, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadgh Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Donnacha Ryan, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Tieran O’Halloran.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
TMO: Jim Yuille (Scotland)
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images