So which South Africa will turn up in Dublin?

IT IS somewhat unfortunate that the ongoing saga about the IRFU ticketing policy has overshadowed the return of international rugby to its traditional home in Lansdowne Road.

As least the union had the good grace to admit they got it badly wrong and have addressed the issue. If only our politicians could have adopted a similar approach over the last few years the country might not be in such a parlous state, where the implications of the economic downturn have even impacted on our sporting fortunes.

It is hard to believe that four years have passed since Ireland lined out in its last international in the old stadium against the Pacific Islands in a game that marked the international debuts of Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and Luke Fitzgerald. A new generation of confident young players have made their name on the international stage, including that trio who have since progressed to play for the Lions and contribute a major role in Ireland’s Grand Slam winning side.

It is against that background of success that the Guinness Series of autumn internationals is set to offer a reflection of where the national side is currently placed less than 12 months out from the World Cup.

After five defeats in-a-row (including non-test games against the Barbarians and the New Zealand Maori), Declan Kidney has the perfect opportunity to test the real depth of his squad over the next four weekends. While it is always disappointing to lose internationals, the absence of so many seasoned players from last summer’s tour to New Zealand and Australia enabled management to spread the net wider than they might have planned, with a number of players making a solid case for inclusion in the RWC squad.

The shoe is very much on the other foot now for a South African side whose preparation for Saturday’s test looks questionable to say the least. Firstly, they have chosen not to arrive in Ireland until tomorrow afternoon. It is a long trek from Johannesburg to Dublin via London and that type of itinerary 48 hours before a test match is not conducive to producing maximum performance.

In addition, 16 of the original squad were tearing lumps out of each other when Western Province met the Natal Sharks in the Currie Cup final in Durban last Saturday. Such was the attritional nature of that contest that three of the selected touring squad – Schalk Burger, Rickie January and Jean de Joung – have been forced to pull out injured while a serious doubt remains over former Munster centre Jean de Villiers.

The rate of injury being sustained now by all squads has reached epidemic proportions; South Africa are travelling short 13 Springboks. They face a midfield crisis without Jaque Fourie, Wynand Olivier, Frans Steyn (who will not be released by Racing Metro for the Irish game as it is outside the IRB window), de Joung and possibly de Villiers.

As a result the Boks’ management have delayed naming their side until tomorrow and have recalled Adrian Jacobs who could feature in the centre against Ireland despite failing to make the Sharks match day squad for the Currie Cup final. By way of contrast, Kidney has such an embarrassment of riches available that Keith Earls is fighting for a place on the bench with Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace, a position from where Ronan O’Gara looks set to win his 100th cap.

When you consider that the Blue Bulls have won back-to-back Super 14 titles and faced fellow South African franchise the Western Stormers in this year’s decider, it is difficult to understand how bad South Africa were in this year’s Tri Nations.

Their coach, Peter de Villiers, has been under the microscope all year and his usual quota of ridiculous comments have landed him in hot water more than once. While he survived the review by the South African board of the Tri Nations, he is still under pressure.

It is understood the board recommended he make changes to the coaching ticket for the tour, but despite approaches to a number of quality candidates, including former All Black coach John Mitchell, former Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer and Stormers coach Allister Coetzee among others, all politely said ‘thanks but no thanks’. One can only imagine how his existing coaching team of Dick Muir and Gary Gold, who both travel on this tour, felt while that was going on.

What is clear is the quality of rugby played by their Super 14 sides and that of the national team are poles apart at the moment. Throughout the Tri Nations series, the senior players, led by their captain, kept the show on the road but with John Smit now absent, towering second row Victor Matfield has been entrusted with the task of blending the entire group and producing a brand of rugby that will reflect their talent with limited preparation.

That said, with all the injuries they have behind the scrum, I will not be surprised if the Springboks unveil a very limited and direct game plan and play to their strengths up front. It will be a massive boost to Matfield that his long-time second-row partner with the Bulls and the Boks, Bakkies Botha, is back after two high-profile suspensions – presuming de Villiers selects him tomorrow. The other significant returnee to the squad after injury is hooker Bismark Du Plessis. He is world class.

The one thing we can say with certainty is that South Africa will bring a huge physicality to the forward effort which will ask serious questions of the Irish eight. The front five will be tested to the full by whatever combination de Villiers reveals with Tony Buckley being offered the opportunity of making the tight head position his own after a decade of outstanding service from John Hayes.

We will reserve further comment until we see what combination South Africa throw into the mix tomorrow.

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