The lingering puzzle surrounding last weekend’s test result in Cape Town extends as much to the under-performing hosts as it does the triumphant visitors. For sheer bravery, a stubborn refusal to bow to the inevitable and a resolve that belied their desperate circumstances, Ireland deserve huge credit.
But serious questions remain; how much of that opening test win can be attributed to Ireland’s rugby ingenuity and how much slack do we afford a host nation that was badly out-of-sync?
Certainly, South Africa were guilty of butchering plenty of try-scoring chances and though the Irish defence remained steadfast in the face of a mighty onslaught, it is difficult to imagine the Springboks being as forgiving with their opportunities in Pretoria on Saturday.
The curious conundrum surrounding Ireland’s loss of CJ Stander represents a scene that has played itself out in many sporting jousts. A numerical advantage on the pitch does not always translate to certain victory.
When a red card is issued, something in the human psyche triggers an equal and opposite reaction across the respective teams; the beneficiary of the red card often has the potential to slip into lethargy and complacency, presumably safe in the knowledge that they have an extra player on the field, while the aggrieved team sometimes manages to confound its predicament with a performance that belies the hopelessness of its plight.
Ireland managed the latter last weekend and played as though Stander’s dismissal was to their advantage. In contrast, South Africa descended into laziness and poor decision-making.
This weekend, Joe Schmidt has opted to change-up his fifteen from the side that started in Cape Town and while the inclusion of Tadhg Furlong at tight-head, Stuart Olding in the centre and Tiernan O’Halloran on the bench are to be welcomed, the selection of Quinn a Roux makes no sense.
Roux was a failure at Leinster before being shipped off to Connacht, where he failed to nail down a regular starting place. He was deemed surplus to requirements in the match-day twenty-three for the Pro12 final against his former side and his performances over the past twelve months have demonstrated little that would merit an international selection.
Schmidt offers the rationale that Roux is the only available option to scrummage on the tight-head side of the scrum, but this is a nonsense, as I’m quite certain that Donnacha Ryan, Ultan Dillane, Ross Moloney or any of the other significantly better options at lock would happily pack down on that side of the scrum, if required.
Roux is a weak link in a forward chain that will face another monstrous examination by the Springboks. He might well benefit from this experience, but with a test series up for grabs, he is a passenger that Ireland can ill-afford.
Olding is an intriguing selection at twelve and the young Ulster centre has the potential to be a star at test level. His talent shone through with Ireland Under 20’s, where some stand-out performances in an Ireland jersey – particularly against Wales in Colwyn Bay – marked him out for bigger things.
Olding is lightning quick with a superb boot and a maturity to his game that belies his tender years. Injury disrupted his season last year but I would not be surprised to see him as the regular centre partner for Robbie Henshaw in next year’s Six Nations. Luke Marshall can I’ll-afford to rest on his laurels. Olding is the real deal and I expect him to announce his talent on the world stage this afternoon.
Furlong finally gets an opportunity to start ahead of Mike Ross in the front row and even if the young Wexford man comes under pressure in the scrum, I would hope that Schmidt has the good sense to stick with him. Furlong is still learning his craft, but he has the ability to be a world-class tight head. He needs miles on the clock and support from his coach Today represents a big opportunity to test himself against The Beast.
South Africa have opted for two changes to their starting XV, both of them enforced. Elton Janties comes in for Pat Lambie at fly-half and Pieter-Steph du Toit replaces Lood de Jäger in the second row.
The home fans will be smarting from last weekend’s defeat; not only because of the result itself, but equally the manner of South Africa’s flat performance leaves plenty of room for improvement. The promise of a new dawn under coach Allister Cotzee never materialised in Cape Town and Ireland will be vulnerable to a back-lash in the high altitude conditions of Pretoria.
If South Africa did under-perform last week, Ireland will be up against a completely different animal this afternoon. The hosts, on this occasion, should have too much for the visitors and the series will be decided in the final test in Port Elizabeth next weekend.
George Hook, Pundit Arena
Read More About: Allister Coetzee, cj stander, Donnacha Ryan, Elton Jantjies, George Hook, Ireland, Joe Schmidt, Leinster, Lood de Jager, luke marshall, mike ross, pat lambie, Pieter-Steph du Toit, pretoria, quinn roux, rugby union, rugny, south africa, Stuart Olding, tadgh furlong, tiernan o halloran, ulster, ultane dillane