Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has brought nine ‘fresh’ players into his match-day squad with the aim of claiming a historic series win in South Africa, writes JON CARDINELLI in Port Elizabeth.
It’s been a tour of surprises as far as Schmidt’s selection policy is concerned. After Ireland won the first Test of the series at Newlands, Schmidt made five changes and a positional switch to his starting XV ahead of the second clash at Ellis Park. Most of those changes were unforced.
At the time, Schmidt played down the number of changes. He laughed off suggestions that he was saving his strongest combination for the third Test, a potential series decider in Port Elizabeth.
And yet, here we are, a week later, with Ireland still in with a shout of claiming their first-ever series win on South African soil. Schmidt has made six changes to his starting team as well as a positional switch, and the match-day squad appears to contain the best available players.
While the coach was quick to point out that Ireland are coming to the end of a long and taxing season, he expressed his confidence in the group selected for the series decider at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday.
‘I’m utterly confident that this is the side that will make me and their country proud,’ Schmidt said on Thursday.
Notable selections see CJ Stander and Jordi Murphy returning to the starting back row, Iain Henderson shifting back to lock, Mike Ross resuming his role at tighthead prop, and Utan Dillane bolstering the Irish bench.
Overall, nine players who didn’t feature at Ellis Park have been brought into the match 23 for the finale at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Schmidt played down the fact that nearly half of the match-day squad have had a week to recuperate in the lead-up to the series decider. He suggested that the Irish might be fighting fatigue as well as a host of determined Boks this weekend.
‘It’s been a long season and there are a lot of tired bodies. Maybe that’s going to detract from the performance and they won’t be at their optimum.
'However, you might not be able to detect that, as while they might not have the reserves of fresh energy, they should make up for it with their commitment.’
Schmidt admitted that the introduction of Warren Whiteley and Ruan Combrinck to the Bok starting side would make the hosts a different prospect.
‘The Boks have got better as the series has progressed. I said it at the start, Allister Coetzee has just started with this group, and it will take time to build momentum.
‘I really hope they don’t play with too much rhythm and synergy this weekend, though,’ he added. ‘Hopefully we can do our bit to influence how they play.
'We will have to be more combative than we were in the last 20 minutes in Johannesburg. We can’t allow them to play off the front foot.’
The crafty coach said that the Ireland players would not need to be motivated ahead of the series decider.
‘I’m not going to try and motivate them too hugely. They are a great bunch of players and they will motivate themselves. They know what is at stake.’
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images