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Will Irish eyes be smiling at Newlands?

Ireland's Johnny Sexton. (AFP PHOTO / IAN MACNICOL)
Roar Guru
3rd May, 2016
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2294 Reads

Ireland has never won a Test match in South Africa. They came close in 1981 at Kings Park, but Naas Botha kicked all twelve South African points off the sand and by drop goal.

Ireland was led by the redoubtable Fergus Slattery, Robbie McGrath, John O’Driscoll, and Phil Orr. The Springboks had a superb midfield with Errol Tobias operating almost in an Australian second playmaker role and the best Bok centre of all time, Danie Gerber.

As has been the case in most decades, the South African loose trio outplayed the Irish, led by the almost perfect combination of Wynand Claassen, Rob Louw, and Theuns Stofberg.

But that 10-12 loss was the closest Ireland has come to defeating the Boks in Bokland.

In June of 2016, the Irish will have three new cracks at a maiden win in the Republic.

Standing in their way is a new coach, facing a government imperative to ‘transform’ the Springboks into a more racially diverse group of players regardless of his true view of players’ merit, which is in direct conflict with his rabid rugby community’s insistence that Irish futility in South Africa continue.

No longer will the Bok coach be able to claim that all his selections are made for rugby reasons first and foremost. These quotas are real.

Allister Coetzee has about a month to devise a plan to defeat Joe Schmidt’s tourists. For a novice Test coach, this must feel like a week at most.

Ireland might fancy their chances. They’ve won four of the last six contests, including a decisive 29-15 win in Dublin in their last meeting. Schmidt famously outfoxed Heyneke Meyer in that match; it presaged Meyer’s ultimate demise.

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But all of Ireland’s five wins (of twenty-two total Tests) over South Africa have been in Dublin. The point differential (even given the fact that two-thirds of the Test rivalry has been played in Ireland) is daunting for Irish hopes: a consistent seven-plus point margin for the Boks.

On June 11 at Newlands, Schmidt will run his battle-hardened troops on to the soft turf, and try to make history.

The Kiwi coach, who usually crops up in any list of top five shrewdest rugby coaches in world rugby, has named a 44-man training squad. Of note, he did not name Tommy Bowe or Luke Fitzgerald, and injury does not explain their non-selection, since he has included still-hurt Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson.

Connacht has been playing fine rugby this season; thus, Matt Healy has been rewarded by inclusion, as is his teammate Quinn Roux. If ‘Roux’ does not sound Gaelic, it’s because the 6 foot 5 inch lock was born and raised in Pretoria, and was a very promising prospect at Western Province before moving to Ireland. Roux is not the only South African in Schmidt’s training squad.

Big, belligerent hooker Rob Herring has captained Ulster, but he was first captain at SACS, one of Cape Town’s oldest rugby schools. He was not the first South African to be noticed by Irish Test selectors. The much stockier Richardt Strauss, a graduate of Grey College, a Baby Bok in 2004, and a cousin of current Bok hooker Adriaan Strauss, won his first Irish cap in 2012.

CJ Stander captains Munster and was their first foreign Player of the Year in 2015, having been named man of the match seven times. Stander is an outstanding ball-carrying number eight, and although still young, is so durable he has 36 caps for the Bulls and 80 for Munster.

He comes from a dairy-farming family in George, on the southern tip of Africa, where he was a champion discus thrower and superb flyhalf in schools. Stander was as sure a future Bok as anyone: he won ten caps for the Junior Springboks and always seemed like the busiest, smartest loose forward in the games he played.

When Stander left for Ireland, I remember thinking it was the start of something different. He was so young and highly respected. But I suppose change always has its winners and losers and above all its adaptors. We can view Stander as a responder to quotas.

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Coetzee certainly has hookers and locks and loose forwards to choose from, with Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit a dynamic young trio of athleticism and strength, Adriaan Strauss rounding into top form, and a dozen loosies who would make the country proud. What Coetzee needs is two healthy flyhalf-scrumhalf duos.

Handre Pollard blew out his knee, Pat Lambie will have his first contact this weekend against the Hurricanes, Elton Jantjies tweaked his knee, and the terrific Stormers pivots are too young to duel the maestro Jonny Sexton.

Cobus Reinach is out for the year, Rudy Paige isn’t even starting for the Bulls, and Faf de Klerk might be used as a bowling pin at the Test level. Coetzee trusts Stormer halfback Nic Groom. But it may all be rather mix-and-match, unless he uses Lambie as a super sub, and starts a Faf-Elton combination.

Two things are for certain. First, Coetzee will be under much pressure not to rely on overseas players because he has to propitiate the ANC’s impatient social engineers and the only foreign-based non-white player in the mix is Bryan Habana, for whom there are plenty of black domestic competitors.

He may be forced to use Francois Louw, because South African opensides have been owned in Super Rugby this season, and depending on his view of captaincy being local, Coetzee may entrust Duane Vermeulen with team leadership. Beyond those two stalwarts, there may be no real need to tap talent from the North.

Second, if the Boks were to lose two or all of the Tests against Ireland, Coetzee would face a firestorm of protest and lost confidence. He simply has to win this series to have any kind of launch. In fact, old-timers like me would be harsh critics if he dropped one Test, the first ever. We have had far too many firsts for Bok rugby in the last year.

Coetzee will be able to field thirteen hard and fit forwards to give the Irish their money’s worth. That’s a certainty. He will have oodles of pace at the back and he can name a variety of midfields to play various game plans.

But what will he have at the base to trouble a world-class player like Conor Murray and what can he muster at flyhalf to control the game?

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And what will we say if Stander scores the winning try to claim Ireland’s first Bok home scalp?

For me, the Boks will still start every Test the favourite against Ireland, here or there, but what an intriguing and mouthwatering test for Toetie Coetzee to start his tenure.