Ireland coach Joe Schmidt holds all the cards ahead of a potentially series-deciding clash against the Springboks at Ellis Park, writes JON CARDINELLI.
South Africa are well behind New Zealand in the world rankings. It’s been nearly seven years since the Boks won a trophy of significance. Why then does an aura of South African invincibility endure? Why do South African coaches, players and fans refuse to believe that the Boks can lose?
The Boks do lose Test matches, and not only to the mighty All Blacks. Over the past two years, South Africa have suffered landmark defeats to Wales, Argentina, Japan, and most recently Ireland.
In the buildup to each of those four matches, South Africa were guilty of a ‘can’t-lose’ mentality. In each of those Tests, they were punished for their complacency. In every one of those games, the Boks were found wanting in terms of composure and tenacity.
South Africa have measured themselves against New Zealand over the past four years. For many of those years, they comforted themselves with the fact that they were ranked No 2 in the world.
New Zealand, however, do not lose to Wales and Japan. They certainly don’t lose to Argentina and 14-man Ireland sides at home.
After the 26-20 defeat to Ireland, Allister Coetzee said that the game at Newlands ‘showed where South Africa are as a side’. Over the course of the post-match press conference, the Bok coach painted an unflattering picture of a team that has shortcomings in just about every department.
While the South African public reacted with outrage to the result on social media, they also reacted with arrogance. Indeed, it wasn’t too long before fans were predicting a South African comeback of epic proportions in the second Test at Ellis Park.
More than one person I spoke to after the game at Newlands puffed out their chest and declared that ‘Ireland had won their one game for the series’. The Boks, they said, would run the tourists ragged on the highveld.
The reality, of course, is that the Boks are one loss away from losing a home series to Ireland.
The question that so few have asked in the wake of the Newlands Test is this: What would have happened had CJ Stander not been sent off?
Joe Schmidt said that the red-card decision was harsh, while Coetzee’s statement on the matter depicted Stander as a victim of a pedantic law rather than a perpetrator of a heinous act.
What if the flanker was not ejected for his clumsy challenge on Pat Lambie? Would South Africa have suffered a beating akin to the 29-15 hammering in Dublin two years ago? The Boks were poor at Newlands, but how bad are they really? If Stander remained on the pitch, and the contest was 15 versus 15, we may have obtained a clearer and possibly more painful answer.
Ireland have come to South Africa with a depleted team. British & Irish Lions representatives like Johnny Sexton, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien were all ruled out of the tour to South Africa due to injuries. Another two potential starters in Cian Healy and Simon Zebo were also sidelined.
While Ireland are missing their star players, they have a crack coach and a simple yet effective game plan. On Saturday, they dominated the collisions and won the battle for territory through their accurate kicking game.
They used their defence as a weapon. They succeeded in their mission to rattle and stifle the Bok attack. They generated turnover ball and had the Boks scrambling on several occasions.
Schmidt has been under pressure since Ireland finished third in the recent Six Nations tournament. His record against South Africa, however, now reads two wins from two matches.
There was good reason for Ireland to celebrate in the wake of the result at Newlands. It was an important stand-alone result. Schmidt, Rory Best and the rest of the side will go down in history. But at the post-match press conference on Saturday, Schmidt and Best gave one the impression that there may be bigger celebrations to come.
Schmidt spoke as if he still has a trick or two up his sleeve. He said that the Boks were not at their best at Newlands, and that the hosts would be better in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.
He evaded the question of whether Ireland had played their best game of the tour. There was a smile on his face when he suggested that this tour was less about winning and more about giving young players opportunities.
I seriously doubt that the ambitious Kiwi would bench what experienced players he has and forgo a chance to win a Test series in South Africa.
The Boks have plenty to rectify over the next week. The players need to realise that a win against a depleted Ireland team is not a forgone conclusion. There is a chance that they could lose the game at Ellis Park as well as the series.
Upsets do happen in Test rugby. The Boks have been on the wrong side of several upsets over the past two years.
The Boks need to get their minds right. Coetzee and his lieutenants also face a significant challenge in anticipating the tactics Ireland might employ at Ellis Park.
If the Ireland players and coaches didn’t have the respect of their South African counterparts before, they certainly do now. By contrast, the Bok contingent faces a fight to regain some respect after their shambolic performance at Newlands.
Photo: Luke Walker/Gallo Images