Saturday’s showdown in Dublin sees the Six Nations champions host a Springbok side high on confidence and ambition.
Saturday’s big showdown in Dublin sees the Six Nations champions host a Springbok side high on confidence and looking to lay down a marker.
They say you’re only as good as your last game. Well, last time out an identical Bok starting XV became the only team in two years to beat the All Blacks. Not bad.
The fact that that game was only a month ago is also significant because Ireland haven’t played together since June. By contrast, South Africa have been together since mid-August and Heyneke Meyer has had the rare luxury of working with most of his squad in training camps since the end of the Rugby Championship after many were withdrawn from Currie Cup duty.
In the past, year-end tours have been viewed as a final push before a well-earned break but this year is very different. The Bok management have repeated that the coming month is being regarded as the start of their World Cup campaign, not as an end to the year.
With only eight games left before the World Cup (six of those on the road) Meyer has hammered home the message that we have entered the final stages of his preparations and he is looking for hard men who can do the hard yards in tough conditions. It’s been dubbed the ‘Fresh Tour’. Complacency will not be a concern.
If all those elements combined don’t highlight the scale of the task facing Ireland this weekend, then the hosts’ injury list should. As many as eight players are missing from the 23 that beat France to clinch the Six Nations title. Ireland simply do not have the depth to match the playing resources of the tourists under such circumstances. Just take a look at the respective benches for an illustration of the gulf between the squads, with the visitors having three World Cup winners ready to lift the tempo in the last 20 minutes.
All that said, the Boks don’t expect an easy ride on Saturday, and they shouldn’t. Ireland are not the Six Nations champions for nothing and Dublin has proved to be a difficult place to visit for the South African sides in the past. Indeed, a single score separated the teams in their most recent clash in 2012.
Under Joe Schmidt Ireland are a very well-organised side and their use of a dominant line-out drive and an ultra-reliable set piece were key to their Six Nations success.
While South Africa have delighted fans with their increasingly expansive approach, their ambitions to move the ball around may need to be tempered somewhat over the next four games. Wet evenings in Dublin and London are a far cry from a dry track at Ellis Park.
Meyer and co. are extremely wary of the threat posed by Johnny Sexton’s kicking game and Paul O’Connell’s ability in the air so don’t expect the men in green to fling it about right from kick-off. Tactical kicking has been an area where South Africa have struggled to execute accurately and, as Meyer put it, “if Sexton can put us in corners it’s going to be a long day.”
Yet, if the Boks play like they did in their last two outings – victories against the Wallabies and All Blacks – and are able to secure clean ball, they should win comfortably.
Players to watch:
For Ireland: Ireland have gone from boasting the most experienced centre pairing in history to one with a combined total of three caps. With Ireland now facing to life without Brian O’Driscoll, Schmidt has turned to fellow Kiwi Jared Payne to fill the void. The 29-year-old made a name for himself in the back three in Super Rugby but has played in the number 13 shirt for Ulster this season. In fact, Schmidt has picked two players who have mostly played at full-back in his midfield as Robbie Henshaw wears 12. Rather than rush Gordon D’Arcy back into action too soon, Schmidt has been forced to pair the players earmarked as potential successors to BOD. “Robbie and Jared have been training together this past week, so we just felt that we would stick with some continuity,” said Schmidt. “Gordon is back to full fitness now, but we weren’t sure of him at the beginning of the week. We haven’t had a lot of time to prepare, and we’ve had to make do.” It’s set to be a baptism of fire for the duo against Springbok skipper captain Jean De Villiers, who boasts 102 caps, and South Africa’s most prolific tackler, Jan Serfontein.
For South Africa: With the Boks increasingly looking to keep ball in hand, the roles of half-backs Francois Hougaard and Handre Pollard have become more important than ever. Between them they managed three brilliantly tries in that victory over the All Blacks but they are seen in contrasting lights by the South African public. While Pollard is the new golden boy, who is expected to confirm his status as the first-choice pivot by showing he can control games in tough conditions in the North, Hougaard’s tactical versatility and accuracy have been called into question, especially his kicking game. Against two excellent tacticians and territorial kickers in Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray, the young duo face a test of their credentials.
Head-to-head: While so much has been made of the midfield clash, the game could very well to hinge on the tussle between the second rows. With wind and rain forecast for Saturday, securing line-out possession will be all important and the battle between Victor Matfield and Paul O’Connell – two of the best locks the game has ever seen – will not only be great to watch, but could be pivotal to the outcome. Throw in the grunt brought by Eben Etzebeth and Devin Toner, and you and have a purists’ dream.
2012: South Africa won 16-12 at Lansdowne Road
2010: South Africa won 23-21 at Lansdowne Road
2009: Ireland won 15-10 at Croke Park
2006: Ireland won 32-15 at Lansdowne Road
2004: Ireland won 17-12 at Lansdowne Road
2004: South Africa won 26-17 at Newlands
2004: South Africa won 31-17 at Free State Stadium
2000: South Africa won 28-18 at Lansdowne Road
1998: South Africa won 27-13 at Lansdowne Road
1998: South Africa won 33-0 at Loftus Versfeld
1998: South Africa won 37-13 at Free State Stadium
1981: South Africa won 12-10 at Kings Park
Prediction: The Boks are unbeaten in the northern hemisphere in their last two tours and have a very settled side. Ireland will compete well, for sure, and their close-call against New Zealand last year will not be easily forgotten. But the absence of key names like O’Brien, Best and Healy etc mean the odds are stacked against the home side. The last quarter will be very tough. South Africa by 15 points, as sports betting markets will attest.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7