Acid Test for Bok halfbacks

Faf de Klerk and Pat Lambie’s decision-making will be under scrutiny when the Springboks host Ireland in the first Test on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Do not underestimate Ireland. They may be missing world-class players such as Johnny Sexton, Sean O'Brien and Tommy Bowe. They have not enjoyed the greatest run of results over the past nine months. And yet they still possess one of the game's shrewdest coaches in Joe Schmidt, and should not be taken lightly.

A lot has been said by the Boks in the buildup to the first Test at Newlands. The coaches as well as the players are anything but complacent.

Their attitude is, of course, shaped by the fact that they have a new coach and captain. Allister Coetzee will be desperate to begin his four-year tenure on a winning note. Adriaan Strauss will want to make a statement about his ability to lead the team in the long term.

The Boks haven't forgotten about what transpired on 8 November 2014. On a wet night in Dublin, an injury-hit Ireland side outmuscled and outplayed their complacent South African counterparts, and emerged 29-15 winners.

That experience has left a mental scar.

Immediately after that match in Dublin, Duane Vermeulen admitted that the team had been guilty of complacency. Earlier this week, the No 8 was asked if the Boks would make the same mistake at Newlands. Vermeulen confirmed that the team remains focused on its objective, and that the players are prepared to work for the result.

Coetzee has picked an experienced starting pack for the first match of the series, one that has the potential to subdue a weakened Ireland eight. While flanker Siya Kolisi is set to win his first Test start, he has played alongside Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen at this level before.

Nevertheless, Schmidt might see this game as an opportunity. The Boks haven’t played a Test since October. They have a new coach in Coetzee, and they are under pressure to play a more attractive brand of rugby.

Many will expect the Boks to blow Ireland away. This may work against the hosts. All the pressure is on the Boks, and Ireland should look to exploit the situation.

Ireland will look to stifle a Bok lineout that should in theory provide a terrific launchpad for the hosts’ attack. They will aim to disrupt the Boks at the breakdowns and slow the recycling of possession.

They used these tactics to good effect in the 2014 fixture in Dublin. On that occasion, the Bok halfbacks spent the majority of the contest on the back foot. Francois Hougaard made some costly mistakes under pressure, and Handré Pollard also had one of his poorer matches in a Bok jersey.

The Bok forwards need to win the battles at the set pieces and collisions this Saturday. They have to stop the Irish from disrupting possession recycling at the breakdown.

There has to be an effort to provide the halfbacks, De Klerk and Lambie, with front-foot ball. If the forwards fail in this endeavour, then the contest may be closer than most expect.

De Klerk will be making his debut for the Boks this Saturday. He will be targeted by the Ireland defence, who will look to shut down his space and prevent him from playing to his running strengths.

Lambie, who has been picked ahead of Elton Jantjies, South Africa's form flyhalf in Super Rugby, will also be targeted by the Ireland rush defence. The veteran of 50 Tests and newly instated Bok vice-captain will be determined to show that he can handle the pressure.

Sexton, the architect of the Boks' demise in 2014, will miss the three-match series due to injury. And yet, even without Sexton, Ireland will pose a threat with the boot.

Don't be surprised if halfbacks Conor Murray and Paddy Jackson launch a series of contestable kicks on Lwazi Mvovo and Willie le Roux, or attempt to kick in behind the Bok defence. That said, the Boks have worked hard to improve their high-ball reception and scramble defence over the past two weeks.

The Boks should win at Newlands this Saturday. If they maintain their physical effort and cope with Ireland's kicking game, they should win by a convincing margin.

Overall: Boks 16, Ireland 5, Draw 1
In Cape Town: Boks 3, Ireland 0

Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Trevor Nyakane,18 Julian Redelinghuys, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Warren Whiteley, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Jesse Kriel.

Ireland –15 Jared Payne, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Finlay Bealham, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Craig Gilroy.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Matthew Carley (England) team's SuperBru picks

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Photo: Luigi_Bennett/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli