Ireland should have the favourites tag going into Saturday's match against the Springboks, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The Springboks have been feted in Dublin, told they are the best Bok squad in the last 20 years and one of the finest teams ever.
The Irish media have dismissed any claims to a home-team win. The common theme is it would be a major shock if the Irish even came close to the Boks.
Heyneke Meyer and his veterans, led by Jean de Villiers and Victor Matfield, will know differently.
We are not talking Italy here. We’re talking a team that won the Six Nations in coach Joe Schmidt’s first season in charge. We are talking a team that led the All Blacks 19-0 after 15 minutes and were 20-odd seconds away from a first-ever triumph against the All Blacks.
Schmidt, a New Zealander, has enjoyed remarkable success in Ireland, firstly with Leinster and now with Ireland.
His Leinster team won the European Cup in 2010-11 and 2011-12 and the European Challenge Cup in 2012-13. They were also Pro12 winners in 2012-13. Before that he assisted Vern Cotter (another New Zealander who now coaches Scotland) at Clermont and won the Top 14 in 2009-10.
And in his first Six Nations campaign he achieved glory with Ireland beating France in Paris to claim the title.
Outside of an indifferent display against Australia in last year’s November Tests, Ireland has been very good against all comers.
Schmidt is an outstanding tactician with a healthy regard for tradition and the history of teams like New Zealand and South Africa.
The Boks, in recent years, have battled in Dublin. They’ve been beaten a few times and while their last visit was successful, only a score separated the teams.
Matfield has spoken up the Irish, saying their scrum and lineout (and not the All Blacks') sets the standard in the international game.
Argentina, when it comes to scrum time, would disagree. Australia, come the lineout, would also disagree.
It’s been a week in which the Boks have been put on a pedestal and the senior players within the Bok squad have been doing their utmost to put the Irish team on a similar pedestal.
The Irish media, in what seems calculated, have put the Irish in a no-lose situation. They’ve taken away all the pressure by being emphatic that their team has no chance.
They’ve written and spoken about the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll and about injury to influential players, but everything suggests otherwise.
It is South Africa’s players who are at the end of a demanding season. It is South Africa’s players who will have to find an extra gear to survive the month-long demands of an end-of-season tour.
De Villiers played for Munster a couple of seasons back. He knows the passion that burns within the Irish. He knows the challenge that awaits.
South Africa are good enough to win all their matches on tour. The Boks, given their evolution and progress under Meyer, have consistently beaten most teams with the exception of the All Blacks.
They finally got one over the All Blacks at Ellis Park, thanks to Pat Lambie’s 55m last-minute penalty. But Ireland in Dublin is very different to playing anyone at Ellis Park.
I’d like to think the Bok scrum and set piece is superior and that the lineout battle between Matfield and Paul O’Connell is a Test within a Test.
But if Ireland did win it wouldn’t be a shock. It would be a shock if the Boks won comfortably.
The Rugby Championship runners-up are playing the Six Nations champions in their backyard.
The favourites tag should belong to Ireland. Don’t be fooled by the purple prose. The Boks, to be successful, will have to be better than they were at Ellis Park and they will have to play with the mongrel and intensity we saw in Wellington, New Zealand.
Again, the Boks are good enough. But don’t be fooled by the pessimism of the Irish rugby media. This is a damn good Irish side. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be Six Nations champions.
Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP Photo