The Springboks will be looking to continue their 2017 resurgence when they face Ireland in their opening November international in Dublin on Saturday.
After the annus horribilis of 2016 which saw the Boks lose a record eight out of 12 games, they have quietly gone about the business of redeeming themselves.
A 3-0 series whitewash of France followed by back-to-back wins against Argentina took some of the pressure off but that 57-0 humiliation by the All Blacks in Albany heaped the pressure back on coach Allister Coetzee and his troops.
They showed character to bounce back with credible draws against the Wallabies and the narrowest of defeats in the reverse fixture against the All Blacks.
Counting in the Boks’ favour will be the fact that they have faced much tougher opposition than Ireland of late.
Compared to the Boks’ schedule, Ireland have only played Canada once and Japan twice in international competitive action since the Six Nations.
This contest also represents a battle for supremacy on the world rugby hierarchy, as a win for the Boks would see them leapfrog Ireland in to fourth position on the World Rugby Rankings.
All three of the sides’ previous meetings have been decided by a margin of six points, with Ireland winning the first fixture and the Boks emerging victorious on the last two occssions. Of the last 10 matches between the sides, Ireland have won four and the Springboks six.
It should be a tight game and while Bok coach Coetzee may be labelling his side as underdogs, he may just be trying to take what is certainly a large amount of pressure off his young side who desperately need a win here to prove that they are capable of winning against top quality opposition away from home.
In fact, Coetzee would probably be the first to admit himself that his side’s record away from home does not make for pretty reading. The Boks have won just one of their nine previous fixtures away from home.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will not be looking to do the Boks any favours; the shrewd tactician that he is. Schmidt has a strong forward pack at his disposal with a world-class loose trio in Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander and a solid, dependable scrum with Tadhg Furlong really making a name for himself.
Meanwhile, Robbie Henshaw will be reunited with his Connacht centre partner Bundee Aki with the battle for ascendancy in the midfield and how smoothly Damian de Allende fits in alongside Jesse Kriel for the Boks to be crucial in the outcome.
And Schmidt is hoping that Aki, who is the 46th debutant under his rule, has a ‘scorcher’.
“I really hope for his sake and for the team’s sake, that he has a scorching game. And hopefully that will appease some of the doubters, but I know there’s an incredible amount of people who are really positive about his involvement as well.”
Springbok coach Coetzee is excited about De Allende’s inclusion: “Modern-day rugby is about using 23 players effectively, and having Kitshoff coming off the bench with 30 minutes to play has worked well for us this season,” said Coetzee.
“Continuity is important and we have kept changes to a minimum.
“I am really excited to see Damian [De Allende] getting an opportunity on Saturday. He has worked very hard and looked good in training.”
“Ireland beat us here in 2014 and with an experienced coaching team and world class players, they are rightfully considered as the favourites and are one of few teams in the last five years that managed to beat the All Blacks,” added Coetzee.
“The Irish have a world-class half-back pair and their set-piece play is extremely good, so it will be a great battle on Saturday.
“They know how to keep the ball and use a good kicking game to put teams under pressure.”
Players to watch:
For Ireland: Sean O’Brien is Ireland’s best player and was one of the standout players in the British and Irish Lions recent tour of New Zealand. He is known for his barging runs, and ball carrying. He also is a great defender and has plenty of speed to boot as was evident in the try he scored in the first Lions test that has been nominated for try of the year. “The Tullow Tank” has been one of Leinster and Ireland’s most consistent performers over the past number of years.
For South Africa: Pieter-Steph du Toit, the 2016 SA Rugby player of the year, had a monster game in the 25-24 defeat to the All Blacks, making 21 carries for his 41 metres. He continues in the flanker role despite primarily being a lock but has impressed regardless and is a massive talent.
Head-to-head: Tadhg Furlong is only just 24 but comes highly regarded, having established himself with the British and Irish Lions. His contest with the Springboks’ most-capped prop of all time Tendai Mtawarira will be a fascinating duel. “The Beast” has silenced the critics who said he may have been over the hill and still very much holds his own at scrum-time. But can the young buck Furlong upset the old master Mtawarira?
2016: South Africa won 19-13 in Port Elizabeth
2016: South Africa won 32-26 in Johannesburg
2016: Ireland won 26-20 in Cape Town
2014: Ireland won 29-15 in Dublin
2012: South Africa won 16-12 in Dublin
2010: South Africa won 23-21 in Dublin
2009: Ireland won 15-10 in Dublin
2006: Ireland won 32-15 in Dublin
2004: Ireland won 17-12 in Dublin
2004: South Africa won 26-17 in Cape Town
Prediction: It should be a tight one. Boks to come to the fore late in the game and win by five.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 John Ryan, 19 James Ryan, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Darren Sweetnam
South Africa: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Francois Louw, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth (c), 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Uzair Cassiem, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Francois Venter
Date: Saturday, November 11
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 18:30 local (17:30 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Ian Davies (Wales)
TMO: David Grashoff (England)