O'Sullivan stands by under-fire defence

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The Independent Online

Ireland face the ultimate examination of their credentials for a place among rugby's élite, here today. Victory over the South Africans at Newlands would not only be their first over a Springbok side on South African soil, it would also obliterate the memory of last weekend's dismal defeat in the first Test in Bloemfontein.

Ireland face the ultimate examination of their credentials for a place among rugby's élite, here today. Victory over the South Africans at Newlands would not only be their first over a Springbok side on South African soil, it would also obliterate the memory of last weekend's dismal defeat in the first Test in Bloemfontein.

Ireland came to Africa as Triple Crown winners and World Cup quarter-finalists, believing they could win the two-Test series. That ambition is now gone, but victory at Newlands is an absolute must if Eddie O'Sullivan's side is to salvage some modicum of respect from the trip.

As their lock forward, Paul O'Connell, admitted: "It was like we weren't up for the game at Bloemfontein. But we are not like a team such as England, who could play to 70 per cent of its potential and win games. We need to be on top of our game to beat good sides. We have to realise that and get back to our best on Saturday."

If Ireland return home, tails between legs at a 2-0 series defeat, there can be only two conclusions that could be drawn. One is that they are not as good as they thought; or they have been dragged below their best by end-of-season fatigue.

Selection is a bone of contention among many critics. O'Sullivan persists with half-backs Peter Stringer and Ronan O'Gara, yet neither remotely impressed in the first Test.

Stringer seldom makes a break and lacks the physical presence to keep a fringe defence honest while O'Gara stands too deep to launch a back-line, so why Ireland's coach continually overlooks the more obvious attacking skills of Ulster fly-half David Humphreys puzzles many, especially in a match such as this, which Ireland must win. Gambling, it seems, is of no interest whatever to Ireland's coach.

The switch of wing Shane Horgan to centre alongside Brian O'Driscoll, in the absence of the injured Gordon D'Arcy, is also bewildering. Horgan is powerful, but one of his weaknesses is that his handling can be suspect under pressure.

The South Africans will surely seek to put heavy pressure on him if they are aware of that flaw.

So handsome a victory margin in the first Test was probably beyond the wildest dreams of the new Springbok coach, Jake White. Tempering the exaggerated levels of expectation among South African rugby devotees is the major headache for any Springbok coach and White's lot is no different.

He has a young side, with five world-class players still missing, although Percy Montgomery has been recalled at full-back, due to Gaffie du Toit's erratic goalkicking in Bloemfontein. White is aware that he would not always get away with that weakness in Test rugby.

South Africa's forwards out-muscled the Irish in the tight last weekend, and little was seen of traditional Irish strengths in the line-out and driving mauls.

Indeed, it was the Springboks who enjoyed ascendancy in those phases and Ireland have to reverse that trend if they are to succeed in the shadow of Newlands' towering stands.

So tentative a display did seem out of character for Ireland last weekend. One suspects that they felt the altitude, for which they had prepared at sea level in Cape Town, was to blame.

There can be no excuses today. Either Ireland have broken into the world élite and will demonstrate why this weekend, or they have merely masqueraded as pretenders to the throne.

Test matches come and go, but this one should tell us a huge amount about just how good Ireland really are and how good South Africa are going to be.

SOUTH AFRICA: P Montgomery; B Paulse, M Joubert, W Julies, J Fourie; J Van der Westhuizen, F du Preez; O du Randt, J Smit (capt), E Andrews, B Botha, V Matfield, S Burger, P Wannenburg, J Cronje.

IRELAND: G Dempsey (Leinster); G Murphy (Leicester), B O'Driscoll (capt), S Horgan (both Leinster), T Howe (Ulster); R O'Gara, P Stringer (both Munster); R Corrigan, S Byrne (both Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli), D Wallace, A Foley (both Munster).

Referee: J Jutge (France).

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