A 2nd chance at history for Ireland in South Africa
After blowing its first chance, Ireland has another shot at a first rugby series win in South Africa on Saturday and has been boosted for the third and deciding test by the return of South Africa-born flanker CJ Stander.
Stander, once a prospect for the Springboks before moving to Ireland, was a big part of the pre-tour hype. But he's played just 20 minutes of the series so far having been sent off midway through the opening half of the first test, and sitting out the second with a suspension.
Without him, Ireland produced one of its finest backs-against-the-wall performances to win the first test with 14 men. In the second, the Irish — with a series win in sight — let slip a 16-point lead and succumbed to a second-half onslaught from the Springboks.
The final stages of that second game in Johannesburg brought home fears that the touring squad, at the end of their season, may be succumbing to fatigue.
"Yes, it's been a really long season and people are tired," Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said. "That's going to maybe detract from people being at their optimum. But at the same time I don't think too many people will detect that because what they don't have in fresh reserves of energy they'll make up for in full commitment."
While Stander returns, fullback Jared Payne, one of Ireland's standout players this series, misses out on the deciding test with a calf injury and is replaced by Tiernan O'Halloran, who makes his first test start
Still, Ireland is close to fielding its strongest lineup after Schmidt's calculated gamble of resting a few players for the second test, perhaps in anticipation of a likely series decider in Port Elizabeth. Schmidt was questioned over that decision, but it just might pay off on Saturday.
That come-from-behind victory eased a little of the enormous pressure on new coach Allister Coetzee, who is yet to win over fans after South Africa failed to beat a 14-man Ireland team in Cape Town in his first test in charge, and was similarly lethargic for the first 40 minutes last weekend.
Coetzee has taken note of the impact two of his substitutes made in the win in Johannesburg by giving No. 8 Warren Whiteley and wing Ruan Combrinck — both try scorers off the bench — their first starts for the Springboks.
"We know what is at stake on Saturday," Coetzee said. "This group of players will continue to grow together as a team and Saturday they have the opportunity to gain more experience."
South Africa's second half surge at Ellis Park was apparently partly down to a ferocious halftime team talk by Coetzee.
Ireland coach Schmidt said it wasn't his style to try a similar trick with the Irish players, who have already exceeded expectations on this tour, ahead of the final test.
"I don't try to motivate players," Schmidt said. "I think players motivate themselves. They're incredibly proud of the jersey they wear and the country they represent. They're gonna get out and work for each other anyway."