Autumn Nations Series preview: Ireland to edge Springboks in Dublin thriller as both teams take steps forward

Dylan Coetzee
Autumn Nations Series preview: Split image with Murray, Sexton, Willemse and Kolbe

The Autumn Nations Series has finally arrived in full force, and this weekend holds a blockbuster fixture that will see the world’s number one side Ireland face the world champion Springboks at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

Ireland are red-hot, having won 14 of their last 16 games, snatching the top ranking after an unprecedented series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand in July.

The Springboks have been hot and cold in 2022 but have been building depth and dealing with injuries. Nevertheless, the champions of the world can topple any side on their day, particularly given the quality at their disposal.

The importance and gravity of this Test do not stop there, as these two teams are in the same pool and will meet in the group stages of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, making the Dublin Test the most sumptuous of dry runs.

Ireland will bring complex structure, enviable accuracy and stand-alone rugby intelligence, while the Springboks will bring brutality, commitment and pure grit.

Buckle up for what will be a vintage Test match and quite possibly the game of the year.

Where the game will be won

Head coach Andy Farrell’s Ireland team defines complexity in every facet of the game. On attack, the structures are so detailed that, more often than not, a ball runner has at least two or three options to use which is where the creative genius of skipper Johnny Sexton is at its most potent.

None of that is possible without a platform set by the forwards, which is one of the areas the game will be won. If Ireland’s pack are dominant in the collision and in the set-piece then their attack will have plenty of decision-making time to find a way through or around the Springboks’ rush defensive structure that can get painfully narrow under pressure. It will be a massive challenge for Jesse Kriel to make good decisions as the outside centre plays a key role in the Springbok defensive line.

Conversely, if the Springboks find dominance in this area, particularly with the ‘Bomb Squad’ off the bench, which has been selected to target the breakdown later on, then the Irish attack will have less time to make decisions and, in turn, play into the defensive structure.

With rain forecasted for the morning and the unpredictability of Ireland’s weather, territory will be paramount, and the aerial battle comes with that. The selection of soon-to-be centurion Conor Murray at scrum-half suggests an aerial onslaught on the diminutive back three of the Springboks, who will need to be brilliant in the air and sound in defensive positioning.

The young half-back pairing of Jaden Hendrikse and Damian Willemse must be spot-on with their kicking out of hand and off the tee on Saturday for the Springboks to stay in the game and get a result.

Last time they met

What they said

Ireland captain Sexton downplayed his side’s world ranking and set his eyes on the World Cup.

“We don’t speak about being number one. To be number one in the world, you need to win the World Cup, that’s where the goals are,” he said.

“Obviously you want to be the best in Europe, you want to win the Six Nations, those are our goals; it’s nothing to do with being number one and I don’t think many teams read too much into it.”

Sexton also underlined how the Springboks deserve respect as world champions.

“We have to give them the respect that they absolutely deserve,” the veteran added, with the Springboks having named an exciting starting XV for Dublin.

“They’re the best team in the world in terms of they’re world champions. They’re a top-class team.”

Springbok director of rugby Rassie Erasmus expects a difficult challenge from Ireland, while also admitting he was delighted to be back involved with matchday activities after the completion of his ban. Erasmus’s return may way be a trump card up the visitors’ sleeve in Dublin.

“We got a proper hiding here the last time and then we won the Rugby World Cup two years later, and it is now five years later,” he said.

“Ireland are doing a lot right on and off the field, so we know we are in for stiff competition, especially with their passionate crowd on their side.

“The fact that the teams are facing one another in next year’s Rugby World Cup will certainly spice things up, but we know what we are in for. We last won here in 2012, but we both have new teams and new game plans.

“It’s going to be great to be back in the coaches’ box,” he added. “I love rugby, matchdays, and being in the change room with the boys. It wasn’t a nice feeling preparing with the team all week only to watch the bus leave and return to my room, so I’m excited about Saturday.”

Players to watch

Veteran scrum-half Conor Murray will win his 100th cap on Saturday in a tremendous career. The Irishman is one of the best box kickers in the game, has solid distribution and a powerful rugby mind. His partnership with Sexton is crucial to the clash that Ireland will want to control with an astute kicking game putting pressure on one of the smaller back threes seen in Test rugby for some time. Murray is a Rolls-Royce and consistent in what he offers, a milestone game for the Irish great and one where his attributes power the game plan.

Loosehead prop Andrew Porter plays a significant role in this Test facing up against one of the best scrummagers in Springbok history in Frans Malherbe. This is a pressure point that the visitors will try to leverage the game with, and Porter needs to hold strong at scrum time. If the 26-year-old achieves parity with his opposite number, then one key area of the Springboks ethos is disarmed. A big performance is required from the big man.

The engine of the Irish pack is none other than Josh van der Flier. The rugby world needs no introduction to the sheer work rate of the flanker. He will be everywhere on Saturday and will completely empty the tank as he always does. Ireland uses the Leinsterman’s rugby intelligence to combat key aspects of the opposition’s attacking structures. Against New Zealand, it was nullifying the wide crash ball played off the scrum-half that took several defenders out of play with each use of it in the first Test. For the remainder of the series, it was his job to combat that play, and he did so, allowing Ireland to dismantle their attack. Van der Flier will be given the blueprint to dismantle the Springboks attack.

Outside of the pack, who all need to perform as a unit, one of rugby’s most exciting talents, Cheslin Kolbe, returns to a Springbok jersey but with 15 on his back for the first time. The hot-stepper is no stranger to full-back, having played the majority of his time with Stormers there and on occasion for Toulouse, so he will have no problem stepping in. His danger speaks for itself, everyone knows he is extremely elusive, but Saturday will demand more than just that; Kolbe will need to be well-placed defensively, survive an aerial onslaught and kick well outside of his attacking duties. Nevertheless, this is an exciting selection that could see a more dynamic Springbok attack. His biggest contribution will be showing he can manage a Test from the back, with Sexton and Murray constantly searching for where they can catch him out. This is a massive game for Kolbe.

Another exciting selection is Kurt-Lee Arendse on the right wing, who offers a fairly similar package to Kolbe. Again, the attacking attributes of the Bulls man are obvious and have been on display in the Test arena. Simply put, he is an evasive threat with the ball in hand. However, Arendse biggest challenge will be in the air and as more of a full-back for his club side, the speedster should manage fine against Mack Hansen of Ireland. It is an exciting yet bold decision to have both Kolbe and Arendse in the same back three, and now the Bulls star needs to pay back the faith.

Jaden Hendrikse is arguably one of the finds of the Test season for the Springboks. The scrum-half has a natural ability to read the game and play instinctually. He is constantly looking for space in and behind the defensive line, distributes well enough and is a decent kicker. The Shark could be the Springboks’ starter at the World Cup, but before that, he needs to put in the most accurate kicking performance he ever has at Test level. He needs to be commanding and cunning. Hendrikse has the ability, but given the mercurial experience of Ireland’s half-back pairing, only perfect will be good enough on Saturday.

Main head-to-head

The match-up to watch this week comes in the form of polar opposites; a mercurial, experienced, specialist fly-half faces up to an elusive, exuberant and confident utility star. It is a mouth-watering head-to-head between Johnny Sexton and Damian Willemse.

Sexton is an absolute master. His vision is second to none, his skill-set remarkable, but most of all, his rugby IQ is completely off the charts. The playmaker has pulled strings time and time again at all levels of the game. The Leinsterman will be licking his lips at the prospect of exploiting a smaller back three and facing up to an opposite number who is relatively inexperienced at 10 on the Test arena. When Sexton plays well, Ireland wins; it is a simple equation. Expect the veteran to command the game by moving the Springbok pack around the field, kicking well and showcasing his outrageous vision.

Meanwhile, Willemse has completely blossomed in 2022 as a Test player and underlined his versatility with stints at 10, 12 and 15 for the Springboks. The Stormer is an athlete; powerful, elusive and committed in every phase of the game. He showcased his potential as a fly-half when he orchestrated a 15-point comeback in the second half against Wales earlier this year as the playmaker. However, facing Sexton will be his biggest challenge with 10 on his back, of which he certainly has the talent to prevail but will have to be at his best.

The only negative with Willemse is that his goal-kicking is average. Somehow the 24-year-old will need to find his kicking boots, as every point counts in a Test like this.

Prediction

Truly one of the most difficult games to call, as both sides have the ingredients to topple the other. The battle up front, the tactical kicking game/aerial battle and goal-kicking are the key determiners of who will walk away with the victory. It favours the hosts, who will feel they can play their game in front of their fans – Ireland by three in the Test match of the year.

Previous results

2017: Ireland won 38-3 in Dublin
2016: South Africa won 19-13 in Gqerberha
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

The teams

Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Robert Baloucoune, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Mack Hansen, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Conor Murray, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jimmy O’Brien

South Africa: 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Deon Fourie, 21 Kwagga Smith, 22 Faf de Klerk, 23 Willie le Roux

Date: Saturday, November 5
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 17:30 GMT
Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Andrea Piardi (Italy)
TMO: Stuart Terheege (England)

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