Friday, November 07, 2014

Preview : #IRLvRSA


SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers (capt), Bryan Habana; Handré Pollard, Francois Hougaard
Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Victor Matfield, Marcell Coetzee, Teboho 'Oupa' Mohoje, Duane Vermeulen 
Replacements: Adriaan Strauss , Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen , Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger, Cobus Reinach , Pat Lambie, JP Pietersen

Aviva Stadium, 5.30pm (live RTÉ Two/Sky Sports 2 HD/RTÉ Radio 1/IRFU Live Blog)
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal, Alexandre Ruiz (both France)

Television Match Official: Jim Yuille (Scotland)


*****

Yesterday I tried to find some overall perspective on the upcoming November internationals for Ireland.  

But just to be clear...these may be officially "friendlies" but that doesn't mean they have anywhere near as little meaning as those which also take place in the Aviva Stadium with the round ball.

Maybe when pundits and bloggers pick at the pieces afterwards, the outcome won't have much bearing on the bigger battles down the line, but for those 80 minutes it's top-tier Test rugby and the contest will be the only thing that matters.

And when you look at the two lineups, there's plenty to get excited about.

The Springboks really have a penchant for doing things their own way.  Flankers don't always conform to wearing 6 for blindside and 7 for openside, for example.  But the differences go beyond little technical ones like that.

Here in Ireland we generally do what we can to keep our players at home, and we're not the only ones - England, New Zealand, Australia all have their own versions of the practice of keeping their test quality players where they can keep tabs on their fitness levels.

Looking at the South Africa squad, it doesn't matter if you play for the Bulls, Toulon, Ulster or even the mighty Suntory Sungoliath in Japan's Top League.  If you're willing to answer the call, you'll get it. 

Another way they differ to most leading test nations, well, recently anyway under Heyneke Meyer, is that they are not "afraid" (a word I use cautiously) to throw a promising youngster into their starting lineup.

Now...we can debate pros and cons of the two practices I mention above until the cows come home, but the fact remains that the Springboks not only managed to halt the All Blacks' unbeaten streak in their last match, but they also appear to be genuine contenders for their crown in RWC2015.

And it's to their younger, more inexperienced players where we must look for their biggest threats this weekend.

I remember how much my heart sunk when Felipe Contepomi went down injured in the 2009 Heineken Cup semifinal at Croke Park.  Sure, the young Sexton showed some promise, but to my mind (and many others') he was in no way ready for this type of occasion.  I think we all know now how wrong that perception was.

South Africa already have quality at out half - Morné Steyn and Patrick Lambie may be different types of players but both definitely have the experience to get a job done.  Still, Meyer has chosen to go with the young Handré Pollard and with two tries against the All Blacks plus some key tackles, the faith was repaid and then some.

Next we have the 13 jumper, one which has caused much debate when it's the Irish green, but for the Boks it is now held by the 21-year-old Jan Serfontein, who over the course of the Rugby Championship forged an excellent pairing with his captain Jean de Villiers, keeping their defensive channel tight to a level nearing Darce & Drico proportions.

Finally in the pack they have "Oupa" Mohoje at flanker.  Saturday will be just his 4th cap, yet again he showed an ability at this level well beyond his years against the World Champions in Johannesburg especially at the breakdown though he is often used as a lineout option when most would be focusing on Messrs Matfield & Etzebeth.

So as you can see, even though they are missing the likes of Ruan Pienaar, these Springboks are coming to Dublin with a confident squad which has been together since August.  How, then, does Joe Schmidt cobble together his team from the five provinces (Racing get honorary status until the season is out) and stop them in their tracks?

Well - much has been made about the battle at centre, with the Boks succesful pairing being challenged by the innovative selection of Robbie Henshaw at 12 and Jared Payne at 13.  This tells me that our centres are going to focus on three things - defence, defence and defence.

Robbie is the nearest we have to a Paduan being given Jedi status, and he certainly seemed to have the required levels of confidence when the reigning Pro12 champions came to Galway in September.  

Can he play the 12 channel?  Why not I say...sure, he's young but he has a lot of experience around him both on training paddock and pitch and I say we afford him the same chance as South Africa are their own youngsters.

Payne for his part hasn't set the world alight at 13 for Ulster but given he & Henshaw will have specific roles on this occasion (possibly swapping places often as JDV & Serfontein are wont to do) I really don't think we could possibly have more faith in someone gaining their first Irish cap.

Much has been said about the Springboks' new tendency to fling it wide more often, and it's true that in Habana and le Roux they have threats out there, but hard running down the middle is always their comfort zone and should we fail to hold down those channels they won't need the width.

However...when it comes to head-to-head battles in the backline, my focus is on Sexton v Pollard.  The young Bok looked a lot like a young version of Johnny in that win over the All Blacks and if our soon-to-be-returning hero can make the most of his experience (particularly in the area of making the right choices as the match progresses) then he could give us the edge we need.

When it comes to the crucial area of kick chasing we definitely have those who can bring the right levels of accuracy in Sexton, Murray, Bowe and Rob Kearney.  Yes, yes, Zebo too.  Honestly, I have nothing against him, he certainly has talent, I just don't see him as a fit for Schmidt-ball, but with the right attitude he can prove me wrong. 

Of course, you can't contemplate taking on the Boks without mentioning the pack.  The visitors will feel they have a shot at turning over possession every time we have it so it is imperative that we match them for intensity, and with Paulie leading the way I'm sure we can do that at the breakdown.

As for set-pieces?  Well, nothing against Rodney Ah You on our bench, but we are definitely back to the "old days" of praying Mike Ross can last at least 79 minutes and 60 seconds, more if possible!  

It most certainly is a baptism of fire for Simon Easterby at Test level, and if we fail to at least secure our own feeds & darts (something that unfortunately is never certain with Sean Cronin for all his ball-carrying excellence) then we could find ourselves in serious trouble. 

The bookies have the visitors as 6-point favourites.   I'm tipping the Boks to win by 4, but with home advantage and Poite holding the whistle there are plenty of ways I can see us kicking off November with a win.

Let's get behind them regardless.  See you at the Aviva tomorrow!

#ShoulderToShoulder JLP
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