Joe Schmidt has laughed off suggestions that he is saving his strongest Ireland combination for the third Test against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth. JON CARDINELLI reports from Johannesburg.
Last week, Ireland beat the Boks 26-20 to take a 1-0 lead in the three-Test series. Even if they lose the second Test at Ellis Park, they will have another crack at a historic series win in the third game in Port Elizabeth.
One could understand if Schmidt decided to target the latter game. There are a lot of tired bodies in the Irish camp following a heroic effort at Newlands. The visitors played 10 minutes of that contest with 13 men, and a further 47 with 14.
Another reason for Schmidt saving his best combination for the third and final match of the series may be related to the difference between Ellis Park and Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
The former is at altitude, and is known for its hostile atmosphere. Ellis Park is feared by every visiting side bar the All Blacks. The latter ground is in Port Elizabeth, which is nicknamed the Friendly City. The Boks drew with England at this venue in 2012.
On Thursday, Schmidt went out of his way to play down the changes to the Ireland side. He was quick to praise the Boks and warned the media that the local side could be on the verge of a big performance.
Schmidt has made five changes to his starting side, as well as a further positional switch in the pack. He vehemently denied that the changes would weaken the Ireland side. Schmidt suggested that many people were similarly guilty of writing off the Irish combination that was selected for the first Test at Newlands.
‘To say we are looking at winning in Port Elizabeth and not in Johannesburg is an insult to the players that are coming in this week,’ said Schmidt, speaking from Ireland’s base in Sandton.
‘Player management was always going to be key on this tour. Except for CJ Stander [who has been suspended for one week], everybody in the 32-man squad is available for selection.
'However, you do need to acknowledge the toll that effort in Cape Town took on some of the players. When we had 13 men on the park, the work-rate was exceptional, but that does take it out of you.
‘Hopefully the new players coming in this week will surprise a few people. You just need to look at how undervalued some of those other players were [in the lead-up to the first Test] to know that there is a great opportunity here. The challenge for the new guys, of course, is to match that effort of the first Test.’
Ireland outmuscled and outsmarted South Africa despite their numerical handicap. Schmidt clearly got one over his opposite number, Allister Coetzee.
It could be said that the Boks are yet to see how strong this Ireland side truly is. If the visitors can keep 15 players on the park this weekend, they should be an even greater threat.
‘Sheesh, I’m not sure if I've outsmarted anybody,’ Schmidt said while scratching his head. ‘You really need to give credit to the players, the way they committed to the game plan and showed their mettle.
‘It is hard to quantify whether we should be stronger this week [if Ireland keep 15 men on the field]. What we can take from last week is that the team didn’t go into survival mode [after Stander’s ejection]. We can’t go into our shells at Ellis Park.
‘The Boks will be stronger having played that game together,' he continued. 'I said it last week, it was always going to be a challenge for them to gel after just a couple of weeks in training.
'They will get better this week, and even better again in Port Elizabeth. So again, we can’t hold anything back this week and just hope to catch the Boks the week after.’
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