Australia’s Israel Folau has lit up the rugby scene since making his debut against the Lions last year while young Wallaby captain Michael Hooper has now taken over the mantle from the great Richie McCaw as the game’s standout open side.
Even the Georgians have a stellar performer in rampaging Toulon back rower Mamuka Gorgodze. Unfortunately, a crocked knee may well prevent him from lining out at the Aviva Stadium, just one of several marquee names set to miss out on international duty this month due to an exhaustive injury list that appears to grow by the day with Rory Best almost certain to be the latest addition.
Despite New Zealand’s undoubted status at the number one ranked side in the game at present, South Africa’s recent 27-25 win over the winners of the Rugby Championship in Johannesburg showed they have closed the gap and are on course to offer the biggest challenge to the All Blacks at next year’s World Cup.
When it comes to star quality, South Africa have several stand-out performers worth the entrance fee next Saturday. Chief amongst them is rampaging No 8 Duane Vermeulen, whose performances over the summer even managed to surpass those of his opposite number in the New Zealand jersey, the mercurial Kieran Reid. That is some achievement.
In the second row, South Africa have the best combination in the game at present in the remarkable Victor Matfield and his locking partner Eban Etzebeth, 15 years younger than Matfield. While Bryan Habana and Willie le Roux provide pace and subtlety from the back three, the most interesting figure in the Springbok back line is 20-year-old out-half Handre Pollard.
A week after leading South Africa to the final of the Junior (U20) World Cup last June, where they were beaten by England, Pollard made his senior debut against Scotland. If South Africa regain the World Cup next year, you can be sure that this young man will have played a pivotal role.
He has already amassed six caps and has grown into the role seamlessly, scoring two tries in that outstanding performance in Ellis Park just over four weeks ago. Suffice to say Joe Schmidt would be far happier to see the vastly more experienced but more predictable Morne Steyn handed the No 10 jersey against Ireland on Saturday.
Not that Schmidt can afford to spend too much time fretting over Heyneke Meyer’s selection, given the challenge he faces on that front due to the now familiar sequence of injuries to key performers.
With 10 internationals behind him since assuming the role of national coach last season, Saturday’s outing against South Africa represents the halfway point on the 22-test journey Schmidt will travel before Ireland open their World Cup campaign against Canada at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium less than a year from now.
Schmidt has just completed his first cycle in the role having now experienced a November series, a Six Nations Championship and a summer test series in Argentina. With a return of eight wins from those 10 tests, he has passed that initial phase with flying colours. He also has a far greater appreciation of what this gig is about and how it differs greatly from what he would have experienced at club level with Clermont Auvergne and Leinster.
Schmidt is a pragmatist and at this stage would grab a return of two wins from the three-test Guinness Series given that it would encompass a victory over one of the big three Southern Hemisphere giants. He will also be aware the chances of achieving that are more likely by targeting Australia, with a win over Georgia the only one that can be predicted with any certainty at this stage.
That said, the Georgians will make life uncomfortable for Ireland up front with the vast majority of their forwards operating either in the Top 14 or the Pro D2 in France. Their problems lie behind the scrum, with little attacking penetration to reward the good work of their forwards. Already qualified for next year’s World Cup, the Ireland game represents their biggest challenge for the remainder of the season and they will be well up for it.
We will know a lot more about the Wallabies by the time they arrive in Dublin given that they will have had three outings under new supremo Michael Cheika by that stage. While they looked less than convincing against a scratch Barbarians side last Saturday, don’t underestimate the feelgood factor of that win and the fact that they were afforded the opportunity of climbing the steps of Twickenham to collect silverware.
Given the trauma and controversy this Australian squad has experienced over the last 18 months, lifting the Killik Cup after their joust with the Baa-Baas will have felt strangely satisfying. Exactly a year to the day, the Webb Ellis trophy will be handed out on that exact podium and it doesn’t require much imagination to suggest what Cheika might have said to his troops when they returned to the sanctuary of the dressing room.
Right now, the Springboks occupy Schmidt’s total focus, but he will not have forgotten last season when Ireland were well beaten by an unfancied Australian side who were still coming to terms with a change of coach, Ewan McKenzie taking over after Robbie Deans was replaced after their series defeat to the Lions.
Schmidt was somewhat guilty of providing an information overload to his players in the build-up to that game, and Ireland under-performed, eventually losing 15-32. He learned a lot from that and Ireland’s performance against New Zealand a week later should have resulted in a first ever win over the All Blacks.
Since then, the players have responded magnificently to the clarity of direction provided by the new coach but Schmidt’s plans will have been severely compromised by those injuries to Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien in particular. He has also become the victim of his own success, as South Africa will target an opening tour win over the reigning Six Nations champions as a very valuable scalp for them.
Meyer has done a magnificent job since assuming the reigns two years ago and, after going back to basics somewhat when he came on board, has now recognised South Africa will not win a World Cup by relying on the boot of Steyn. They must increase their capacity to score tries through a more expansive game plan and not just by means of their potent line out maul.
Pollard attacks the gain line and not only poses a threat himself but also has the passing game to create opportunities for those outside him. While the Irish management will have endured a number of sleepless nights worrying about the power of this Springbok pack and the damage their scrum could impose with Ireland’s front-row resources down to the bare bones, it is Meyer’s selection in the key No 10 jersey that will exercise the thoughts of Schmidt most.
I suspect he would be far happier if youth didn’t get its fling on this occasion.