Rory Keane reports from Johannesburg

FOR A MAN who had just masterminded arguably the greatest victory in the history of Irish rugby, Joe Schmidt cut a cool figure following his side’s heroics in Cape Town.

Chatting to the small gathering of Irish press on this South African mission, the Kiwi was his usual calm and composed self.

There was guts and character aplenty across the board on Saturday. Schmidt, however, was quick to point out the canny and intelligent parts of the Irish performance such as Luke Marshall’s deft grubber kick for Jared Payne’s try, Paddy Jackson’s timely drop goal just before the break or the tactical brilliance of Conor Murray.

It was the bravest of rear-guard efforts, but there was plenty of methods throughout the madness.

“I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a team scramble and work so hard to stay in the game,” said Schmidt following his side’s stunning 26-20 win at Newlands.

“When down 13-10, I felt we were incredibly unlucky with Robbie’s tackle. I thought both arms were wrapped below the shoulders and if there was a bit of a head clash, again, I think it was pretty unlucky, particularly because Luke Marshall had his cover line blocked pretty visibly.

“When they went 13-10 up nobody panicked. [To] Jacko, we sent a simple message on, build and take the drop goal if it’s on and he just did it like a past master, it was a class effort. The try in the second half, we did get a bit of a fortuitous finger tip from Le Roux but at the same time I thought we finished it really well and the same in the first half.

“It was a super little ball from Luke Marshall, again, probably one of the unsung workhorses of the day but you could probably name a stack of those.”

Ulster centre Marshall delivered a superb performance against a physical Springbok midfield and fully justified his selection alongside Robbie Henshaw with his defensive reads, footwork and distribution all top class.

It was the 25-year-old’s first start in an Ireland since the Argentina tour back in June 2014.

Marshall, who was Ireland’s 24th man on matchdays throughout the Six Nations, developed a highly-effective midfield partnership with Stuart McCloskey for Ulster this season putting him right back in the shop window for Test selection.

Schmidt came in for criticism for not selecting McCloskey for this summer tour; many feeling the Bangor Bulldozer was tailor-made to take on the Boks.

“Yeah, we probably copped a little bit from different people about who’s here but the guys that are really put their hands up today,” said Schmidt.

“We know they’d be some really good ones that missed out on selection but we want to keep growing the group and that’s part of what we want to try to do while we’re here and I think they’ve got a bit of growth out of today.”

Therefore, does the Ireland head coach feel vindicated for his much-criticised squad selection?

“Not really, because on the day of selections I made 29 phone calls,” Schmidt replied.

“It’s the worst part of the job because I know how hard those players have worked and how important it is for them to get a green jersey. You want to be able to give them out and challenge people. You have to be really good at a lot of things.

“We had to be really good defensively today and Andy Farrell’s brought a fair bit into the group but what the players brought today was what really counted because they knew the system but they believed in each other to deliver it and I think that’s what they did.”

Marshall was part of six-strong Ulster contingent that spearheaded this historic result. His provincial team-mate Jared Payne flourished in the vast open spaces at full-back.

The former Auckland Blues three-quarter was hugely influential throughout the Test whether it was pouncing for the opening try, producing a superb backdoor offload in the lead-up to Murray’s crucial score or helping to bundle JP Pietersen into touch in the dying seconds, Ireland’s New Zealand-born No 15 was everywhere.

Despite his strong Ulster form at full-back, Schmidt had previously preferred to deploy Payne at outside centre, where he won all 14 of his Ireland caps before Saturday’s tie, citing his defensive solidity in the 13 channel.

Schmidt’s thinking may have changed after his display against the Boks.

“We like him at 13 because he gives the frontline and the edges a real bit of clarity and we felt, to be honest, that we lacked that in a couple of games that he hasn’t played, that he’d been fairly vital for us. That happened in the World Cup as well.

“His ability under the high ball, while he didn’t win all of them because [Lwazi] Mvovo is very good under the ball, he just has a calm about him, he has a good experience about him, you know, he’s played here enough times, he knows the stadium, he knows the game and he just gives the players in front of him confidence that he’s going to make some good decisions.

“We got a turnover at once stage from a knock-on and he went to kick it down into one corner where there was huge space and it skied off his foot and went straight up in the air. So he had the right idea, he just didn’t execute it at the time, but he has good ideas, he makes good decisions and he’s a pretty physical player. I don’t think people realise that Jared will fully commit and he’s a strong man.”

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Schmidt hinted before the Test series that he would like to rotate his squad over the three weeks on Springbok soil. The likes of Matt Healy and Craig Gilroy have enjoyed superb seasons, Schmidt is a huge admirer of Stuart Olding while Ultan Dillane and Sean Cronin made big impacts off the bench last time out.

Saying that, Saturday’s display makes it very tough to make any changes going forward.

“Yeah, look, it does,” added Schmidt.

“I know that either way I sometimes feel that if I do that’s great and if I don’t it’s great or it’s not great but what we’ll do is, the coaches will get together, we’ll get together with the medics and we’ll make those decisions later in the week. Some of them might get made earlier if the guys are fully fit, like the skipper and those sort of guys.

“We’ll take the time to make sure guys are fully fit to make Tuesday’s training and on Thursday morning before training we’ll make sure that guys know exactly what their role is and then they’ll try to deliver that at training as preparation for what will be an unbelievably tough test for us.

“Our guys don’t play at altitude. A lot of these [Springbok] players come from the Lions, I think it might be nine in the bigger squad that got selected so for us it’s going to be a huge challenge.

“I guess at the moment it’s too early to tell just exactly what we might do.”

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