South Africa ready to up the intensity against Ireland
Springbok starting line-up expected to largely resemble one that beat All Blacks
Handre Pollard scores the first of his two tries against New Zealand at Ellis Park last month. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images.
Test of their end-of-year tour, against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday. They seem to be in rude health, or at any rate in ruder health than their hosts. Their starting side is expected to largely resemble the team that beat the All Blacks four weeks ago, since when their home-based players have been excused duty from the Currie Cup and have had an unprecedented two weeks’ training together before their tour.
“It’s been great to have the guys out of Currie Cup,” said the tourists’ team doctor, Craig Roberts, yesterday. “We worked really hard for the last two weeks leading up to this. In the week in Stellenbosch, we were able to work on fitness, top up on the fitness. We are at the end of a very long season. The fitness levels often drop, so we were able to top up quite a bit with that. I am actually quite happy with where the guys are at this stage.”
The only injury concern among their 34-man playing squad is Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, who has been sidelined since mid-September with a medial knee ligament injury. Roberts virtually ruled out the Ulster scrum-half early yesterday when saying: “At this stage, it doesn’t look like he will be available for a game this weekend. We hope to have him for England.” But subsequent to that morning press briefing, Pienaar apparently came through his first fitness test pretty well.
“I don’t think there’s a secret,” said Roberts of their injury situation, which he maintained was “about normal” at 20 per cent. “What has happened is the severity of injury tends to go up, so we are having players out for longer and longer periods of time. The big ones for me are where players are out for 28 or more days.
“The game is continually changing. The guys are getting bigger and faster. The collisions are bigger, the game is quicker and there is more ball-in-play time. It’s related to exposure, so it is multifactorial, really.”
Fitness key to expansive gameHeyneke Meyer
“It’s difficult to say,” said Roberts with a smile, when asked if this was the fittest Springboks squad he has known. “Our play has changed and we have had to adapt to that. Yes, we are looking at a tempo game and we are upping it a bit, so we have upped our intensity a lot at training. That has been a key focus for us. Our intensity at training is a lot higher than previous years, for sure.”
Shorter, sharper sessions are intended to replicate game conditions.
It had always been the Springboks’ ambition to play in this style, according to backs coach Ricardo Loubscher. “If you go back to the championship, we played a few games in the wet, and it was difficult to play that style. But in the last few games, in great conditions, we were quite happy with our performance. Obviously, there are still areas we can improve on.”
Another significant factor in all of this is having the players with the requisite flair and skill set to play a more adventurous game, and since the Springboks were last here the former outhalf Willie le Roux has been converted into a nominal full-back cum joker in the backline. There has also been the emergence this year of 20-year-old outhalf Handre Pollard, who scored two tries in his 19-point haul in that win over the All Blacks.
“If you go back to when he started, he had to get used to the conditions, get used to playing at this level,” said Loubshcer. “I was quite happy with the way he performed. It’s a different skill set and obviously something we enjoy as coaches.
“Handre is a guy with a different skill set. He’s a threat with the ball in hand. He has a great kicking game. He has great vision. That’s exactly what I want from a coaching point of view. And on the day it’s all about opportunities, identifying those spaces and the mismatches.”
Loubscher’s continuing references to the conditions did suggest that their approach might be tempered a little on Saturday, depending on the weather. “Obviously the conditions will play a key part. The focus point will definitely be our game management. We’ve spoken about that and hopefully on Saturday we can get it right.”