South Africa v Ireland
Venue: Stade de France, Paris.
Kick-off: 9pm local time/8pm Irish.
On TV: Live on RTÉ and ITV
So this is it, then. Ever since the Rugby World Cup draw was made circa 1,014 days ago this was the match both countries and their supporters circled. True, losing will not be fatal. Yet it’s the pool game that somehow feels as defining as any knockout match.
The winner will be best placed to win Pool B, and if so encounter the All Blacks in the quarter-finals, while avoiding France, and would also have an additional day’s rest before that point.
Alas, Antoine Dupont’s unfortunate absence from the quarter-finals may have made France somehow less daunting at that juncture, but Saturday night’s winners will add to the form, confidence and momentum they’ve already generated.
Andy Farrell’s team, number one in the world rankings, are on an all-time record Irish run of 15 consecutive victories and have won 27 of their last 29 Tests. South Africa, ranked a fraction behind in second and the reigning world champions, have won their last six, including that statement thrashing of the All Blacks, the strangulation of Scotland and the routine rout of Romania.
Tickets have been like gold dust in Ireland. Whereas normally the Stade de France is an imposing away night, the Irish players and coaches have talked excitedly about the expected 30,000 Green Army.
There’ll be plenty of Springbok green in the stands too, but their team will be in their changed jasmine and white kit, with Ireland in green, and there were plenty of the latter milling around the buzzy streets of central Paris the day before the game.
The rain relented by lunchtime, and the forecast is for a cloudy evening with temperatures of 15 degrees. Both Farrell and Rassie Erasmus have opted for their strongest sides possible. It couldn’t be set up much better.
The only meeting in the last six years was Ireland’s taut and gripping 19-16 win last November from which each side retain all but four of their starting XVs. With James Lowe, Bundee Aki, Jamison Gibson-Park and Ronan Kelleher starting, Dan Sheehan and Conor Murray now on the bench, as well as Robbie Henshaw, on balance Ireland look stronger.
Similarly, Manie Libbok, Faf de Klerk, Bongi Mbonambi and Franco Mostert now start, but Malcolm Marx and Lood de Jager are sidelined. Their 7-1 split on the bench is clearly designed to intimidate but one cannot think of that happening to any Irish side under Farrell’s watch. Granted, the Boks’ final quarter amalgam of power and flair stretched Ireland to the limits last time.
As against Scotland, they will contest every scrum, lineout and breakdown, and shoot up remorselessly. Nothing will come easy. There will be stress aplenty for Ireland, they’ll have to roll with the turnovers and keep playing.
Failing a fast start by either side, a cagey opening with plenty of kick tennis, is preferable to giving the Boks early territory and penalties. They’re in their element when front-runners.
But the Boks have sacrificed the playmaking skills of Willie le Roux on the altar of the 7-1 bench, and the Books look the worse without the try-assist king.
Furthermore, in calling up Handre Polard (most likely to close out games in the knock-out stages) rather than a second specialist hooker, the loose forward Deon Fourie and lock Marco van Staden are the back-up throwers.
Not that Paul O’Connell was inclined to say that this might weaken the Boks’ lineout after the Friday captain’s run in the stadium. “I don’t know about that. Deon Fourie has always looked very competent to me. I remember when I was down in France, watching him swapping from back row into hooker for Lyon, and he was absolutely incredible.”
Fourie and Van Staden each threw against Romania but almost exclusively to the front and occasionally to the middle, without being contested, and in the event of Mbonambi being replaced, O’Connell and James Ryan will surely have spotted this.
The Boks’ attack has evolved with Libbok at ‘10′, but this is the best phased attack in the game against the best defence. Ireland have scored 20 tries in two games, South Africa have conceded just 10 points in their last three games, and a paltry two tries in their last seven World Cup matches.
“To beat a rush defence you have to go through it,” Ronan O’Gara told Jim Hamilton in a typically captivating interview with the ex-Scottish lock on Rugbypass this week.
Rather than running into bodies, being tackled behind the gain line and having slow ruck ball, O’Gara said: “Footwork, fend at the line and short passes,” is the best way of beating a blitz. “If you play ‘long pass’, ‘long pass’ against South Africa they’ll eat you with salt. It’s exactly what they’re looking for.”
O’Gara stressed that shorter passes between the scrumhalf and first receiver, and then first and second receiver, for the latter to play the ball before or out of the tackle, can take out more Boks’ defenders.
Whereas almost everything went through Finn Russell for Scotland, not so Ireland. They have the skills to vary their receivers, to play tip-ons, passes inside or out the back to go wide.
There were a couple of nice tip-ons by Aki as second receiver to Garry Ringrose, as well as that fizzing inside skip pass by Sexton to unlock the Tongan rush defence, which also seemed like a daring warning shot to the Boks.
In what looks a classically 50-50, one-score game too, Ireland will have to be cute to score the two or three tries they’ll probably need to win. The quick hands from three tight five forwards after a turnover, and Gibson-Park dummying as Damian de Allende flew up for the decisive Mack Hansen try last November was a case in point.
While this is the ultimate test for Ireland’s attack, the same is probably true for the Boks’ defence.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris. Replacements: Dan Sheehan, David Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson, Ryan Baird, Conor Murray, Jack Crowley, Robbie Henshaw.
South Africa: Damian Willemse; Kurt-Lee Arendse, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe; Manie Libbok, Faf de Klerk; Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe; Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert; Siya Kolisi (Capt), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jasper Wiese. Replacements: Deon Fourie, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, RG Snyman, Jean Kleyn, Marco van Staden, Kwagga Smith, Cobus Reinach.
Forecast: Ireland to win.