Springboks won't give an inch as Ireland search for redemption
RUGBY: Ireland v South AfricaTo hell with the IRB rankings, World Cup draws, the presence of Lions coach Warren Gatland and other such trivialities for the moment. Come the welcome 5.30pm kick-off under lights and what should be a feverish Aviva given the forecast of a dry evening, this Ireland coaching ticket and team alike need a performance to restore confidence in themselves and their public.
Admittedly, in such a time of need, there could have been handier visitors than a match-hardened Springboks; no one’s idea of a team inclined to give an inch. And as circumstances would have it, Ireland also look a tad under-nourished as well as under-cooked.
It’s been five long months since Ireland reeled away from Hamilton, and only seven of that Ireland starting team survive, what with losing two Lions captains and two European players of the year as well as a player, Stephen Ferris, who is the prototype for this kind of confrontation.
The Hamilton wounds linger, as if all else has been airbrushed from history, including nearly beating the All Blacks a week beforehand. Imagine the perception if that had been a two-Test tour? Ireland’s true standing is probably closer to the first of those two wild extremes, though while this refreshed team ought also to be fresher physically and mentally, one of the worries is it took them a game to re-acquaint themselves with the intensity generated by the Southern Hemisphere big three, as is usually the case for the European teams in this or any other Test window.
Then again, these more structured Springboks are not as unpredictable as the All Blacks. Given the choice of going through you or round you, they take the former route.
Ruan Pienaar is liable to box kick defensive lineouts, restarts and much else from their own territory. Further up the field they launch Jean de Villiers or one of the backrow carriers up the middle and then bludgeon with one-off runners before going wide. When closer still to the opposition line, they go to their maul and failing that, turn to one-off runners or De Villiers before picking their time to go wide.
Much of their back play has looked lateral and unthreatening save for the absent Bryan Habana, but the fit again JP Pietersen had a fine Super campaign and the selection of the talented Patrick Lambie is a curve ball. He is more naturally inclined to attack the gain line than Morné Steyn, and he has a more inventive array of short kicks. Along with backrow, outhalf looks a critical duel, with Ireland more proven in the latter, if less potent in the former.
Lambie’s place-kicking, given the Boks’ unusual woes in this regard, is a primary reason for his selection, though it may also suggest Heyneke Meyer does feel under pressure to apply more width. Zane Kirchner’s first instinct is to kick and their booming kick-chase not only applies pressure but cleverly closes the space to prevent quick throws.
A tad ominously, with last June in mind, their restart and lineout games are excellent, while their scrum and pack are settled. Eben Etzebeth competes brilliantly on the opposition throw and along with a typically muscular backrow, midfield et al, will be unremittingly confrontational.
Their tacklers will need to be encouraged to release, and their quickness in manoeuvring themselves over the ball, notably Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen, is sure to test Ireland’s continuity.
So, as Les Kiss acknowledged yesterday, while it’s one thing knowing what the Boks might do, it’s another thing stopping them. Ireland’s accuracy will be tested everywhere, especially in their basics, and this includes restarts.
In the absence of Seán O’Brien and Ferris, and now all the more so with the loss of Paul O’Connell, it really is a day for new heroes; the likes of Cian Healy and Richardt Strauss, Mike McCarthy in the secondrow and Peter O’Mahony, whose switch to blindside ought to ensure more carries.
You sense there’s a big performance coming from Ireland, that they will draw a line in the sand early on to match the Boks physically and at the breakdown.
But, ultimately, Ireland are going to have to outsmart rather than outmuscle the Boks.
Clearly, with the selection of Simon Zebo’s big left boot, along with his running attributes, Ireland will seek to avoid playing too much rugby in their own half.
But it will be by selectively going wide and using the footwork and pace of Keith Earls, along with the ballast and strength of the outside three, that they might find chinks in South Africa’s armour out wide.
Though more battle-hardened, this South African side have achieved little north of Namibia to date, drawing in Argentina and losing to Australia and New Zealand. Ireland have a real shot, it’s just that South Africa are more acquainted with the high intensity this game is liable to be played at, and Ireland are just that little less equipped to cope than they would have been with O’Connell, Ferris and O’Brien in their ranks.
HOW THEY LINE OUT
Zane Kirchner (Bulls)
J P Pietersen (Sharks)
J acoTaute (Lions)
J ean de Villiers (W Province, c),
Francois Hougaard (Bulls)
Pat Lambie (Sharks)
Ruan Pienaar (Ulster)
Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks)
Adriaan Strauss (Cheetahs)
J annie du Plessis (Sharks)
Eben Etzebeth (W Province)
Juandre Kruger (Bulls)
Francois Louw (Bath)
Willem Alberts (Sharks)
Duane Vermeulen (W Province)
Replacements: S Brits (Saracens), C J van der Linde (Lions), P Cilliers (Lions), F van der Merwe (Bulls), M Coetzee (Sharks), M Steyn (Bulls), J de Jongh (W Province), L Mvovo (Sharks.)
(Munster) Simon Zebo
(Ulster) Tommy Bowe
(Munster) Keith Earls
(Leinster) Gordon D’Arcy
(Ulster) Andrew Trimble
(Leinster) Jonathan Sexton
(Munster) Conor Murray
(Leinster) Cian Healy
(Leinster) Richardt Strauss
(Leinster) Mike Ross
(Connacht) Mike McCarthy
(Munster) Donnacha Ryan
(Munster) Peter O’Mahony
(Ulster) Chris Henry
(Leinster, c) Jamie Heaslip
Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), M Bent (Leinster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), I Henderson (Ulster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O’Gara (Munster), F McFadden (Leinster)
Forecast: South Africa to win.