Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Irish prop PAUL WALLACE discusses the evolution of scrummaging, why Ireland are smarter than South Africa and the series decider on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: You’ve toured South Africa on a few occasions. What are your memories?
Paul Wallace: For me, South Africa is the best nation to tour because there is always so much going on and the love of rugby in the Republic is palpable. Owing to the fact that South Africa is so culturally diverse, it felt to me as if I was touring a continent as opposed to a country. I visited South Africa in 1995 as a member of the Irish Rugby World Cup squad and two years later it was a privilege to be one of only five members of the British and Irish Lions squad to play the full duration of all three Tests. The fact that we had the first two Tests at sea level boosted us and we dominated the goal-kicking stakes, which was a huge factor in ultimately securing the 1997 series 2-1. Similar to the current side, the Springbok class of 1997 was a team in transition in terms of their play and we caught them on the hop.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the current series with bragging rights up for grabs?
Paul Wallace: From an Irish perspective, this series has already been a huge success. Ireland have put themselves in a unique position to become the first home nation to win a series in South Africa. If Joe Schmidt’s men manage to achieve the feat in Port Elizabeth on Saturday it would be massive for Irish rugby and something which the players would be forever proud of. I believe Schmidt had a masterplan for the tour to South Africa all along and always intended rotating his players with the probability that the third Test would prove the decider. He wanted to give all the players in the squad a run, and Matt Healy’s inclusion means that all members of the 32-man squad will have been involved in the matchday 23. Schmidt’s mantra is to rotate players and maintain the same level of performance. For 140 of the 160 minutes that have been played during the series, that target has been attained.
Sport24 asked: What is your impression of Allister Coetzee’s men after two Test matches?
Paul Wallace: South Africa have traditionally played a very direct game with big ball-carriers, and their physical domination up front has been their calling card over the years. However, it appears as if, in recent times, they have moved away from their primary strengths. Truth be told, I was surprised to see how the Irish pack bullied the Springboks in Cape Town and Johannesburg, barring the last 20 minutes of course. There is no doubt that the Boks have missed the physicality of players such as Schalk Burger and Bismarck du Plessis. I believe South Africa will only get better under Coetzee, but they need to keep hold of their physicality and set-piece domination. For argument’s sake, some 16-year-old players in South Africa are bigger than some internationals in Ireland who are fully-grown men. I’m not suggesting that South Africa should solely employ a physical-domination game and neglect a skill-based game, however, they should utilise their brute force to their advantage. I believe South Africa are caught between two styles at the minute and are trying to adapt. The Springboks are rebuilding and trying to play more creative rugby and make use of the offload. Using direct runners is an effective tactic, at times, but against the likes of the All Blacks you will come unstuck if you don’t add more strings to your bow. They need to avoid lateral running on attack because as the first Test underlined, it was easy to defend against.
Sport24 asked: How has the art of scrummaging evolved in the modern professional era?
Paul Wallace: Under Paddy O’Brien, the former head of the IRB’s Referee’s Board, rugby’s governing body detracted from the dark art of scrummaging. The hit-and-chase, where packs would rumble on through the mark before the ball had been fed, was all about size and power, and I believe it took the skill away from the front row. Thankfully, the hit-and-chase, which I felt was very dangerous, has been taken away and we now have front rankers who need to be more intelligent on the bind and in terms of scrum height. Moreover, with the scrum now solid before the ball goes in, it’s once again a game for all body types which is a great. Under the current law interpretation, the tighthead prop putting the loosehead into an uncomfortable position is more important than getting the big hit. In terms of the scrum feed, initially the referees were very good at policing the straight feed. However, as far as the strike on the ball, the flexibility from many modern day hookers just isn’t good enough. Some hookers would literally kick the ball out of the scrumhalf’s hands, but nowadays they can barely gain sideways. Meanwhile, from a South African point of view, tighthead Frans Malherbe will be feeling the heat because he has given away the most penalties – 5 – by any player thus far this series. He has been pinged especially at the breakdown and that discipline issue will have to be checked. It will also be interesting to see how Malherbe fares when scrummaging against Jack McGrath. For me, the man from Leinster has been the standout tight forward of the series. My advice to Malherbe would be to look at his arm position because I feel he leaves McGrath in too comfortable of a position.
Sport24 asked: Who should be in the coaching mix for the 2017 British & Irish Lions series?
Paul Wallace: With Eddie Jones having already declared his unavailability, at the moment, Wales coach Warren Gatland would probably be the front-runner. However, if Joe Schmidt remains at the helm of Ireland next year and spurns a coaching return to New Zealand, he would very much receive the blessing of the IRFU to coach the British and Irish Lions. A Gatland-Schmidt combination could work well, much like the Ian McGeechan-Jim Telfer coaching partnership which was in place during the 1997 tour. The other coach who would be huge is Englishman Andy Farrell. The difference between Ireland during the Six Nations and on this tour has been their defence. He has completely improved that facet, and the tactic of ripping the ball in the tackle has been used to great effect in order to get turnovers.
Sport24 asked: What are your expectations for the Test series decider in the Friendly City?
Paul Wallace: Although South Africa head into the third and decisive Test with the momentum owing to the confidence they garnered from the come-from-behind win at Ellis Park, I feel that the freshness of the Irish players may swing the series in their favour. Ireland have made five changes in personnel and one positional switch from the team that was vanquished in Johannesburg. Schmidt would have saved something in the tank with regard to outsmarting South Africa in the series decider. In my opinion, Ireland have outcoached their South African counterparts, and Schmidt will have a few things up his sleeve again in an attempt to catch the Springboks off guard. Ireland were smart to make use of the box kick chase on Lwazi Mvovo’s wing, but with Ruan Combrinck now in the starting XV they will come up with other tactical plans. I reckon that there will be a couple of set plays that Ireland will look to run and they will also introduce some variations at the maul. Having won back-to-back Six Nations titles, Ireland have shown what they can do in the northern hemisphere. However, not being able to win Test matches regularly in the southern hemisphere has proved the biggest stumbling block. And, if you want to become a World Cup contender, you have got to be winning Test matches and series away from home. I believe Ireland will draw inspiration from England, who made history by winning their first series Down Under. Ireland will show up mentally, but the million rand question is which SA team will turn up – the one that finished the Ellis Park Test or the one we saw at Newlands?
PREVIOUS CHATS:Felipe Contepomi