The Springboks will dominate the scrum and breakdown this Saturday but Victor Matfield’s performance at the lineout will be key to a big victory, writes JON CARDINELLI in Dublin.
Earlier this week, an Irish journalist did a double take when he was told that this particular Bok team is nowhere near full-strength. Indeed, the Boks have been missing world-class players such as scrumhalf Fourie du Preez and outside centre Jaque Fourie since the beginning of the year. Further losses over the course of the Rugby Championship will force them to field two second-choice flankers as well as a third-choice No 9 against Ireland on Saturday.
And yet, one cannot compare South Africa's injury situation to that of Ireland. The Boks have outstanding depth in certain positions. Marcell Coetzee has proved an excellent alternative to the injured openside Francois Louw. Francois Hougaard may possess a different skill-set to that of Du Preez and Ruan Pienaar, but he too has produced some influential performances for the national team.
Ireland don’t have the same depth, and will go into this weekend’s clash with more hope than conviction that an upset against the No 2-ranked team in the world is possible. They are missing as many as eight players from the 23 that featured in the Six Nations decider against France in March. For a relatively small rugby nation, that is a massive loss.
While they may boast the title of Kings of the North, it’s been three years since they tasted any success against one of the big southern hemisphere sides, and five since they last beat the Boks. It’s not hard to understand why the local press and public are so pessimistic ahead of the clash at the Aviva Stadium this weekend.
What the hosts do currently possess is three world-class players in lock Paul O’Connell, flyhalf Jonny Sexton and No 8 Jamie Heaslip. As long as those players remain fit between now and kick-off, Ireland will harbour some hope of victory.
Heyneke Meyer and his lieutenants have been wary in the buildup to the match. The touring South African media may be in a bullish mood, but the Bok coaching staff are taking nothing for granted. This much has been conveyed publicly, and in the private conversations I’ve had with members of the management team. They aren't expecting an easy assignment, and have pushed the players hard this week to eradicate all complacency.
That said, the Boks have to be considered favourites. Their scrum has improved remarkably over the past 12 months, as has their breakdown play.
Much has been made about Coenie Oosthuizen’s selection on the bench as a backup tighthead, but I doubt that any weaknesses will be exposed when the Boks pack down against an Ireland eight that is missing the likes of Cian Healy and Rory Best.
Whether the Boks can win the battle at the lineout is another story. Matfield and O’Connell have enjoyed some absorbing encounters over the years. While Matfield is widely recognised as the best No 5 to have played the modern game, there have been days when O’Connell and the Irish set piece have come out on top.
Matfield said earlier in the week that the Boks have a point to prove at the set piece. They were statistically the most secure lineout unit in the Rugby Championship, but evidently they lament the few lineouts that were lost at key junctures of a contest. There was no greater example than in the match against the All Blacks in Wellington. Had the Boks secured a lineout feed deep in the All Blacks 22, they may have gone on to maul the ball over the tryline line and take an important lead.
The advantage that Matfield has this week is that he has some experienced players at his disposal. Eben Etzebeth is into his third season now, and can no longer be considered a rookie. Meyer has told me that Duane Vermeulen is in Matfield's league when it comes to analysis and preparation, and fast developing into a world-class option at the tail of the lineout. And then there are the veterans on the bench, Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger, who will lend the Boks impetus in the second half of the contest.
It will be interesting to see how Meyer manages his 23 players on Saturday. Typically, he sticks to a premeditated plan, and deploys his subs in the final quarter regardless of the situation.
If the game is still close at the hour-mark, will he back halfbacks Hougaard and Handré Pollard to close out the game, or will he look to Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie to make an impact? Reinach is one who has never played in these conditions before, and it could be a tough ask to adjust in the space of 20 minutes, and perform at a time of the game where the result is still on the line.
Rain is expected in Dublin this Saturday, although the skies should be clear by kick-off. This will suit the Boks, who look to inflict as much damage as possible in the first 40.
The pressure is on the Bok set piece to live up to its billing, and for Matfield to deliver in his battle against O’Connell. The Irish will endeavour to stifle the Boks at the set pieces, and spoil at the breakdown, all with the aim of hampering that dangerous Bok backline.
If the Boks manage to win clean ball at source, then they will win by a comfortable margin. In that event, don't be surprised if Matfield walks away with the Man of the Match accolade.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Boks 16, Ireland 4, Draw 1
In Ireland: Boks 9, Ireland 4, Draw 1
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2012: Boks won 16-12 (Dublin)
2010: Boks won 23-21 (Dublin)
2009: Ireland won 15-10 (Dublin)
2006: Ireland won 32-15 (Dublin)
2004: Ireland won 17-12 (Dublin)
MATFIELD’S STATS THAT MATTER
117 – The number of Tests he has played for the Springboks
23 – The number of lineouts he won in the Rugby Championship (Rank 2)
1 – The number of lineouts he stole (Rank 4)
64 – The number of tackles he made (Rank 5)
Source: Vodacom Stats App
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Bakkies Botha, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 JP Pietersen.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Mike McCarthy, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones.
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images