Leinster v Bulls provides litmus test for Ireland and Springbok hopefuls

Jared Wright
Leinster v Bulls: Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour, Bulls Ruan Nortje, Marco van Staden and Elrigh Louw.

Friday's clash provides a perfect opportunity to claim a Test call up.

The top-of-the-table United Rugby Championship clash between Leinster and the Bulls on Friday provides the perfect opportunity for fringe internationals to stake a claim.

The two most in-form teams in the URC collide at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in what promises to be an epic clash between the Irish and South African sides.

For the players on the fringe of the Ireland and Springbok squad, this is a golden opportunity to catch the eye of Andy Farrell and Rassie Erasmus and secure a spot in their plans.

We take a look at those who will be eager to make the most of the opportunity with the highly-anticipated July series between South Africa and Ireland fast approaching.

Chance for Leinster stars

Leinster already provide the majority of the players to Farrell’s Ireland squad, but there are still several stars who are on the fringe of selection.

The July internationals could be a particularly important squad selection for Farrell as it is his penultimate squad before he takes a break from Ireland to prepare for the 2025 British and Irish Lions, which will see him miss the next Six Nations.

Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Jordan Lamour and Garry Ringrose all featured during the Six Nations and are set to return in Leinster colours against the Bulls.

The six aforementioned players either mainly appeared off the bench during Ireland’s run to the title or got a single start during the tournament.

While Healy is well aware of his role in the squad as a replacement, the remaining players will all be eager to make a press for a start in South Africa through their club form and what better way to do it than impressing against a South African side.

Ringrose was a regular starter for Ireland last year, but injuries limited his appearances in green during the Six Nations, and now that he is fully fit, he will be hellbent on grabbing the number 13 jersey.

United Rugby Championship: Four games in Round 13 that are CRITICAL for the playoff race

Conan has been a regular starter for Ireland in the past as well, but the rise of Caelan Doris has seen his grip on the starting number eight jersey slip. With Peter O’Mahony’s Test future up in the air, Conan has a chance to reclaim the number eight jumper with Doris shifting to the side of the scrum. However, that opportunity is also there for Baird, who is seemingly been lined up as a lock-blindside flanker hybrid.

The Byrne brothers, Ross and Harry, will also want to stake their claims and put pressure on current first-choice fly-half Jack Crowley. Harry played second fiddle to Crowley for most of the Six Nations in competition with Ciaran Frawley, and after his sin-binning against Scotland, he will be keen to impress.

As for Ross, he was seen as Johnny Sexton’s heir, but injuries and the rise of Crowley meant that he did not take on that mantle. Farrell has shown faith in older brother Byrne in the past and may turn to him once again in South Africa.

Meanwhile, Scott Penny continues to grow in the number seven jersey, and while he seldom lets Leinster down, the Irish back-rower depth has limited his chances. The same applies to Max Deegan, who was a standout against Zebre again, the 27-year-old is a consistent performer for Leinster but just hasn’t forced his way into the selection plans. Then there is the case of chop tackle expert Will Connors who never let Ireland down and has been dealt a harsh hand on the injury front.

The Ireland boss spoke ahead of the Six Nations, stating that 2024 would be a case of evolution instead of revolution, but there surely has to be an opportunity to breathe new life into the squad and producing a statement shift against the in-form South African team will go a long way forcing Farrell’s hand.

Even in the case of Larmour, the electric back earned his place back into the Ireland set-up and while he did add two caps to his tally during the Six Nations, he did not make the most of his chances and may need to prove himself again to be recalled. Particularly with Mack Hansen returning from injury ahead of the trip to South Africa.

United Rugby Championship: Unpacking the tight playoff race that includes 11 teams

Bulls time to shine

While changes were kept to a minimum for Farrell in his first five Test matches of the year, Erasmus is set to blood new talent into the Springbok jersey in 2024 with an ageing squad winning the 2023 World Cup.

Many players will have the opportunity to feature against Wales before the Ireland series, particularly for a South African team that does not make the URC final. Either way, many of the Bulls players have a fantastic opportunity to press their claims for a call-up or even a starting role, and doing so against a Jacques Nienaber-led defence makes the opportunity all the more important.

Erasmus has highlighted the prop roles as an area of concern for the Springboks going forward and the Bulls pair of Gerhard Steenekamp and Wilco Louw are in a primed position to step up and claim a spot in the wider squad – at the least. They are in the right age bracket to lock down a long-term role in the Bok set-up.

The same applies to the hooker role, and after a starring performance off the bench against the Dragons, Johan Grobbelaar certainly is in the mix. Jan-Hendrik Wesselss is less of the finished product compared to Grobbelaar, but he certainly has the talent.

Marco van Staden was part of the 2023 World Cup squad and continues to shine for the Bulls, which will put him back in the selection frame for the Boks. Leinster have a similarly effective breakdown to that of Ireland and if the 28-year-old can rise pester the Dubliners rucks, he will be well-placed to grab a spot in the matchday 23s.

Much like Leinster and Ireland, the Bulls and Springboks have stellar depth in the back-rower, with Mpilo Gumede already impressing the selectors while Elrigh Louw and Cameron Hanekom have pushed their names forward through stellar shifts throughout the season.

There is also an intriguing prospect for young superstar Canan Moodie, who has been turning out in the centres for the Bulls, a position many believe his future lies. The 21-year-old has Lukhanyo Am and Jesse Kriel ahead of him in the pecking order for the number 13 Bok jersey but has star names ahead of him on the wings as well in Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe.

With Erasmus building towards the next World Cup, if Moodie continues to shine in the midfield, he could shake up the pecking order.

Putting in a fine performance on Friday evening could do either set of players the world of good, and make no mistake, the coaches will be watching closely.

READ MORE: RG Snyman reveals the process behind one of the Springboks’ most lethal weapons