Ireland Rugby’s date with history has arrived and the time has come to address one of Ireland’s most unwanted records, that being the fact that they have never beaten South Africa away from home.
Not once in seven attempts.
In their last encounter back in November 2014 in Dublin, Ireland handed South Africa their fifth loss in 22 tests and gave Joe Schmidt his first southern hemisphere scalp as Ireland head coach.
In the two years since that tactically and technically assured victory much has changed for both countries. South Africa has wrung the changes. Following their World Cup semi-final defeat to New Zealand last October, the Springboks have replaced head coach Heyneke Meyer with Allister Coetzee. In fact, all that remains of the coaching ticket is forwards coach Johann Van Grann.
Coetzee has chosen to invest in the Springboks’ future for the Ireland series by including nine uncapped players in his squad. Three years out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup, this is a smart move and will ensure that even with the loss of some players to retirement and injury, Coetzee will have a large pool of experienced and battle hardened internationals when they roll into Japan in three years.
Ireland too has seen much change to the squad that beat South Africa last time out.
The single biggest change has been the retirement of talismanic captain Paul O’Connell. Following his planned retirement from international rugby after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, South Africa’s own monster lock and talisman, Victor Matfield, hailed the Irish man as ‘the best player I’ve ever played against’.
While the loss of O’Connell is immense in terms of experience and leadership, Schmidt has been fortunate in that the emergence of Iain Henderson coincided with O’Connell’s last couple of seasons and the big Ulster man has grown into a formidable second rower and is seen as a future captain of Ireland in the same mould as O’Connell.
Schmidt has named only four uncapped players for the South Africa tour: Sean Reidy, Quinn Roux, Matt Healy and Tiernan O’Halloran, with the latter two only included after the injury jinx struck again and saw the loss of Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney and Johnny Sexton before the squad even left for Cape Town.
The fact is that since Ireland’s Six Nations tournament victory in 2014, injuries have been a major issue for Schmidt and the Ireland set up. Persistent hamstring troubles for Leinster’s Sean O’Brien has seen the Tullow Tank miss much of the last 18 months and is again absent from the squad that travelled to face the ‘Boks.
While the presence of CJ Stander, Jordi Murphy and Tommy O’Donnell certainly gives the flanks of the scrum some teeth and muscle, the ball carrying, line breaking and general intensity of O’Brien will be sorely missed against what is a big, powerful South African pack that awaits Ireland.
In addition to O’Brien, loose head prop Cian Healy is also missing. Neck surgeries and knee injuries have robbed Leinster and Ireland of another tank of a man, just the sort that is needed against the monster scrum of South Africa.
When you consider that Schmidt is also without Sexton, both Kearney brothers, Tommy Bowe, Fitzgerald and Peter O’Mahony, a bleak picture emerges. So much experience lost can only make the task ahead more difficult.
It’s been over 100 years since Ireland first took on the might of South Africa and throughout all the social, economic and cultural revolution that have taken place in both countries, history records that the one constant is Ireland’s inability to beat South Africa away from home.
With three chances to rewrite the history books, Schmidt will try to use his tactical genius to guide Ireland to success. However, with another burgeoning injury list to contend with and the expectation of a very physical series, the fear is that Ireland might well fall short once again. To do so would leave Ireland with a possible 0-10 record against the Springboks away from home.
That’s the negative approach to the battles that lie ahead. From a positive stand point, Allister Coetzee is rolling the dice with a much changed squad from the World Cup. Victor Matfield himself is gone, retired like O’Connell. While the squad is still full of big men, Ireland will be eyeing another tactical approach as the key to unlocking the door to victory.
Where Johnny Sexton is a known and studied out half, Paddy Jackson is less so and following a super season for Ulster, will be full of confidence heading into the first test at the weekend. Add to this the return of Henderson from injury, and things are beginning to look up.
Then there is CJ Stander. South African by birth, but told he would not make it as a Springbok, Stander travelled to Munster and qualified for Ireland this year. His impact has been immediate and gives Ireland huge defensive and attacking options from the back of the scrum.
So maybe there is good cause for optimism. Maybe Ireland won’t come home with a 0-10 record. Maybe it will be 3-7, something far more respectable. Maybe.
The curtains raise and the musings stop on Saturday June 11 at 4pm where in the DHL Newlands Stadium in Cape Town, Ireland will look to rewrite history.
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