Veteran Ireland No 8 Jamie Heaslip refuses to entertain talk that the Springboks are losing their aura, writes CRAIG LEWIS in Johannesburg.
Over the past 12 months, the Boks have suffered first-ever defeats to Argentina and Japan, while last Saturday the Irish came away with their first win in South Africa. At the end of 2014, the Boks also succumbed to only their second-ever defeat to Wales.
Increasingly and understandably, just how far the Boks have regressed is being questioned, and particularly as the All Blacks continue to surge into another stratosphere altogether.
Just this past week, the Boks slipped below England to fourth in the World Rugby rankings, and remain not that far ahead of Argentina, Wales and Ireland.
Going into Saturday’s second Test against the Irish, they now face the ignominious threat of becoming the first South African team to lose a home series in 19 years.
Heaslip said Ireland were fully aware that they were on the cusp of a momentous achievement, but he laughed off suggestions that the Boks had lost their fear factor.
‘I think if you look back at history, it’s very hard to win a series in South Africa. Only New Zealand [2-1 in 1996], France [1-0 in a two-match series in 1993] and the British & Irish Lions [2-1 in 1997] have achieved that before. We’re all too aware how difficult it is to even win a one-off game against the Boks, and they remain a very tough side to play against.
‘When I think of South Africa, I think of a massive group of men who can really play,’ he added. ‘Look at the forwards who will front up on Saturday, they’re all big men who are mobile and skillful, and who know what they’re about. It’s pretty intimidating. We have immense respect for South African rugby, and make no mistake, they’re a scary challenge. Whether you play them at home or away, it’s a daunting task to come up against the Boks and we’re fully aware of that.’
Heaslip said Ireland has already put last weekend’s historic win behind them, and were focusing on the challenge of facing a fired-up Springbok side.
‘When you play these sort of internationals back-to-back, with all the analysis and knowledge that players have of each other, it means every week can be completely different. We really can’t get too carried away with one win. Ultimately, the team that makes the least amount of mistakes is usually the team that walks away with the right outcome. I’ve been involved in 86 games for Ireland and that’s just generally the theme of any win or loss.’
Heaslip’s opposite number, Duane Vermeulen, has been battling a knee injury this week and will need to pass a late fitness test in order to take up his place in the Boks’ starting lineup.
Although Vermeulen was far from his best last Saturday (like most of the Springboks), Heaslip said there was no doubting the value he added to the Springbok cause.
‘Duane is a fantastic player, and he definitely imposed himself [at Newlands], although he maybe wanted to get over the ball a little bit more [to force turnovers], but when he was on the ball he was making his presence known and getting go-forward. The ruck speed off a lot of his carries was like one second, or one-and-half seconds, which is very hard to defend against. As an opposite No 8, he offers so many different threats around the field, and we expect another big back-row challenge on Saturday.’
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