The Springboks’ game management skills will be under scrutiny when they front a pragmatic yet polished Ireland side on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI in Dublin.
Three years ago, the Boks were handed a tactical lesson by Joe Schmidt’s Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. Ireland were without several star forwards on that occasion, yet still managed to overpower and out-manoeuvre a more experienced South African pack at the set pieces and breakdowns.
As the rain came down, so did the Boks’ chances of winning the Test. Johnny Sexton was in imperious form that night with the tactical boot. After being fed a steady supply of front-foot ball, the flyhalf proceeded to kick for the corners and drive the Boks back. The high-hanging bombs launched by the Ireland halfbacks were poorly managed by the Bok back-three.
South Africa lost that match 29-15.
This week, Bok coach Allister Coetzee has highlighted the importance of the line-kicking battle. He has spoken about an inevitable aerial bombardment, with scrumhalf Conor Murray, Sexton and fullback Rob Kearney identified as the likely long-range assailants.
Coetzee has shown no sign of concern, though. He has expressed his confidence in South Africa’s ability to negotiate Ireland’s forward challenge and subsequently their high-ball barrage.
He has also reminded reporters that clear conditions are expected this Saturday evening. He has intimated that a dry field and clear sky will suit the more expansive visitors.
It’s probably not worth banking on, though. If you’ve spent some time in central Dublin this week, you would have noted how quickly the weather can change.
One minute you’re walking down Grafton Street towards St Stephen’s Green, shielding your eyes as the low winter sun shoots its glare directly into your face. A couple of hours later, and you’re joining buskers, tourists and locals alike in racing for shelter as the rain pelts down and soaks the cobblestone streets.
It might not rain during the game itself on Saturday, but the ground may be wet. That will translate into a slippery ball, which in turn will translate into a relatively slow-tempo game that will suit Ireland.
Coetzee has picked a pack for a physical battle. The Boks could certainly have done with Duane Vermeulen at No 8, though. His knowledge of the northern hemisphere conditions and prowess on the ground would have been an asset.
As it is, hooker Malcolm Marx and stand-in No 8 Francois Louw will be under pressure to match Ireland’s breakdown bandits. Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander will work to slow the recycle of South Africa’s attacking ball and give the hosts’ formidable defence more time to align.
Ireland come into this clash with a simple yet effective game plan. They have the forwards to match the might of the Boks. They have the halfbacks to translate any set-piece gains into territory and points.
Andy Farrell’s defensive strategy worked a treat for the British & Irish Lions on the recent tour to New Zealand. Expect to see Ireland using similar tactics this Saturday. Expect to see the Ireland backs rushing up to shut down scrumhalf Ross Cronjé and drive Elton Jantjies further back into the pocket.
There’s been a swagger about the Boks this week, just as there was a swagger about the team that beat the All Blacks in 2014 and then came to Ireland brimming with confidence.
This team, however, has no reason to be bullish given their results over the past two years. While they showed some fire against the All Blacks last month, they still came short.
The Boks need the rain to stay away on Saturday. Ireland may be rusty, having not played as a unit for several months. The Boks have to take advantage of that in the early stages.
They have to dominate the forward exchanges and then apply the pressure to the less experienced combinations in the wider channels.
That said, the Boks’ own limitations and dearth of experience could be exposed. Jantjies is a weak link on defence, even more so when his forwards are on the back foot. At the back, Courtnall Skosan, Dillyn Leyds and Andries Coetzee don’t boast a Test cap in the northern hemisphere between them.
Things could get ugly for the Boks at the Avivia Stadium if they start poorly.
A loss would stretch the Boks’ winless streak to five, and heap the pressure on Coetzee and company ahead of the subsequent matches against France, Italy and Wales. The Boks have not won a game in the northern hemisphere since 2015.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 John Ryan, 19 James Ryan, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Darren Sweetnam.
Springboks – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Francois Louw, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth (c), 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Uzair Cassiem, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Francois Venter
Photo: Patrick Bolger/Getty Images