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Friday 24 November 2017

Ireland have to take right approach against Springboks

Jacob Stockdale during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

While tomorrow's clash between twice World Cup winners South Africa and Ireland, a team that earlier this week Springbok coach Allister Coetzee labelled the All Blacks of Europe, is an important barometer as to where both teams are currently at, both coaches obviously have an eye to the future.

While is almost unfair to discount some of the older Irish players a year and half out from Japan, and with a load of games still to be played before Ireland meet Scotland in their first game of RWC19, Joe Schmidt needs to come up with a team that might go where no other Irish team has gone before, namely past the quarter-finals.

Time moves fast in international rugby, and with possible defections to the 'sugar daddy' clubs of England and France, and the usual injury count in the modern game, then the World Cup will be upon the national coach before he knows it.

Not that anyone expected Schmidt to tinker too much with his selection for tomorrow's match. That will come for the game against Fiji.

Unlike Coetzee and his team, fresh from an arduous Southern Hemisphere series, Schmidt has had limited time to prepare for this weekend's match against a Springbok side that seems capable of anything and nothing at the same time.

It would be fair to say that on home soil, and with the core of a team that has performed well during Schmidt's watch, Ireland must be regarded as favourites, a tag that many in the camp will try and play down, but a tag that Ireland has to start to live with.

Much will be made of the Springboks' last-minute loss to the All Blacks in Cape Town, but a couple of weeks before they had suffered their biggest international loss, failing to score a single point against the All Blacks. who racked up 57.

Scrutiny

One of Schmidt greatest attributes is loyalty, so only a couple of positions would have come under scrutiny. In others he is blessed with talent, like the front row where veteran Cian Healy is back to the type of form that made him one of the best in the world.

It is still hard to fathom what Leinster's Seán Cronin has done wrong. The Blues hooker has become one of the most dynamic replacements in European rugby and would seem an ideal man to come off the bench, especially if the tempo against a big physical side needs to be upped but he hasn't even made the bench.

The second row is another area where Schmidt has plenty of options but not a lot of experience as a unit. Ulster's Iain Henderson and Devin Toner is a nice combination to have, a ball-winner out of touch in the 6ft 11 inch Toner, and the ball carrying abilities of the abrasive Henderson.

In my opinion, Henderson is more likely to feature as a blindside flanker in the next World Cup as a crop of young second rows, led by Leinster's James Ryan, look to further their claims later this season.

The back row is the experienced combination of Irish and British Lions CJ Stander, Peter O'M ahony and Seán O'Brien, although Rhys Ruddock has proved that against a physical side like South Africa he could present a serious asset off the bench. Ulster's Jacob Stockdale and the recently Irish-qualified Bundee Aki come into wing and centre positions respectively.

However, the creativity of Joey Carbery at 15 has been sacrificed for the reliability of Rob Kearney.

The fact that Aki and Henshaw soldiered together for Connacht at one stage, and the natural combination of their power and footballing skills, makes this potentially an exciting and world-class midfield pairing.

Despite what some may think, Aki has made his home in Ireland and his inclusion will be Ireland's gain, much like CJ Stander. Aki will soon become a cult hero with his committed approach and infectious energy.

From a Springbok point of view, Coetzee does not have the same strength in depth to select from, and is desperately trying to arrest a recent malaise in South African rugby.

Despite being recommended by the World Rugby Board for the 2023 World Cup, South African rugby has had plenty of upheaval over the past few years. The value of the European currency against the Rand and the chance for South African rugby players to set themselves up for life elsewhere has meant a substantial player drain to Europe, with France almost being a second home for many Springboks.

However, with their physical captain Eben Etzebeth available, South Africa will not lack their traditional muscle up front - but can they unlock Ireland's tight defence outside or match Ireland's world-class half-backs?

Struggled

Probably not. This South African side has struggled, especially away from home, but as they proved in the recent series that they are at least trying to embrace a running game, aligned of course with plenty of big men.

At fly-half, Elton Jantjies is the new breed of running Springbok, along with the likes of centre Jesse Kriel, but Jantjies can be inconsistent.

South Africa will be very wary of Ireland's superior kicking game, especially Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton's game management and ability to drop the ball in behind.

South Africa don't offer the same counter-attack threat in the back three as New Zealand or Australia and Ireland will use this.

If Ireland get into a dour arm wrestle, then South Africa can certainly punch plenty of holes in close. The secret for an Irish win is fast ruck ball and to play their own game.

Use an intelligent, up-tempo game plan with new cap Bundee Aki's ability to off-load and the likes of Stockdale to hit the line after a number of build-up phases.

Do this and Ireland will have too much for a team still struggling to find its feet.

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