The Springboks’ game management will be under scrutiny once again in the third and decisive Test against Ireland, writes JON CARDINELLI in Port Elizabeth.
Eastern Cape rugby fans have been crying out for a high-profile clash in the Friendly City for some time. It’s been two years since the Boks last played in Port Elizabeth. The Kings made their return to the Super Rugby tournament earlier this season, but have since made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Local fans desperately need a reason to celebrate. They may get one at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday evening. The Boks must be favourites to win the Test, and clinch the three-Test series.
Of course, most believed the Boks were favourites in the lead-up to the series opener at Newlands, and again in the buildup to the second match at Ellis Park. Those contests did not play out as many expected they would.
For the Boks to win this Saturday, they need to out-Ireland Ireland. Joe Schmidt’s team has come to South Africa without a host of top players. Nevertheless, Ireland have been surprisingly dominant at the gainline, supremely aware at the breakdown, and, most significantly, close to flawless in their execution of a clever tactical-kicking game.
The Boks have the personnel to play to a similar type of game. Contrary to the perception held by some, a pragmatic approach can produce tries as well as a positive result.
That said, the Boks should be more concerned with the latter than the former this weekend. A loss would be a disaster for Allister Coetzee in his first series as head coach, and for the players hoping to make a statement at the beginning of a new four-year cycle.
The Boks started poorly at Newlands. Coetzee subsequently admitted that the players lacked the necessary intensity in the early stages of that match. After the Boks trailed 19-3 at half-time in the second match at Ellis Park, Coetzee lamented their lack of discipline and control.
Ireland won’t want for motivation this Saturday. They are one win away from a historic series victory.
Ireland have come to the end of their season. It would be fair to expect a massive push by the visitors in the first half. They will be looking to take a commanding lead in this the last lap of what’s been a fascinating race.
The Boks can’t afford to let Ireland break away like they did at Ellis Park. In order to stay with the visitors, the Boks will need to front at the gainline.
The hosts will also need to show more intelligence. In recent weeks, the Boks have been guilty of elementary ball-carrying errors. They have conceded far too many penalties.
Ireland have played their part in stripping the ball-carrier. They have competed fiercely at the breakdown. The tourists have played the referee better in the first two Tests.
The Boks have to make a change. They have to adapt to referee Glen Jackson’s breakdown interpretations from the outset of the series decider.
Schmidt has continued to play down Ireland’s tactical-kicking display at Ellis Park, even though the quality of the decision-making and execution in that area was superb.
Flyhalf Paddy Jackson was relentless in his assault on Lwazi Mvovo’s wing. The Ireland kick-chase often came through to force a mistake by the Bok winger, or to win the ball in the air.
Ireland were equally impressive in this area in the first Test at Newlands. One can’t see them moving too far away from a strategy that has produced game-shaping results.
Coetzee’s side does not want to go down in history as the first-ever Bok team to lose to one of the home nations in South Africa.
Some might say the Boks are desperate to win. Others will say they are afraid to lose. Call it what you want, but it amounts to the same thing: This Bok side will be under immense pressure at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday. And you can bet on the crafty Irish working to exploit the situation.
Adriaan Strauss’s leadership will be under scrutiny, especially in the first 40 minutes. So too will that of Francois Louw at the breakdown.
The Boks may miss Duane Vermeulen’s leadership as well as his physicality at the gainline. Vermeulen’s absence robs the Boks of an excellent breakdown exponent. Meanwhile, Ireland will welcome back their first-choice blindside flanker, CJ Stander, who has served his one-week suspension.
No 8 Warren Whiteley will have a point to prove in this clash, as will flanker Jaco Kriel when he is brought on later in the contest. The Lions loose forwards have played some great rugby in the 2016 tournament, but have battled to make many telling statements in the contact area.
The obvious exception was that massive effort by Whiteley and Kriel against the Sharks at Kings Park earlier this season. The Boks need Whiteley and Kriel to bring the same attitude into this contest. This series decider against Ireland promises to be a war of attrition.
Ruan Combrinck is another who has impressed for the Lions this season. He certainly made an impact when coming off the bench and winning his first Test cap last week.
Coetzee’s decision to promote Combrinck for the series decider is the right call. The winger can offer as much on attack as Mvovo, as well as something extra in the aerial and tactical-kicking departments.
Ireland were outlasted by the Boks at Ellis Park last week. The South Africans may expect the tourists to run out of steam in the second half of the match at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium this Saturday.
How the Boks manage the situation, regardless of what lead they enjoy at any point in the contest, will be crucial. They have to take the points when they are on offer. Even a 20-point lead may not be safe against an Ireland side that possesses some devastating broken-field runners.
Ireland made a statement with their physical and tactical-kicking display in the first two Tests. The Boks will need to win these battles if they are going to clinch the series and make a statement of their own.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Boks 17, Ireland 6, Draw 1
In South Africa: Boks 8, Ireland 1
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 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 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Julian Redelinghuys, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Morné Steyn, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.
Ireland – 15 Tieran O’Halloran, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Luke Marshall,12 Stuart Olding, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Finley Bealham, 18 Tadgh Furlong, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Matt Healy.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images