When it comes to mastering the arts of set piece play, there are none better than South Africa. Given the make up of the Afrikaner, it is hardly a surprise that they look to maximise the physical advantage their gene pool delivers. They were born to play rugby.
While this has always manifested itself in the scrum, the emergence of gifted athletes such as Victor Matfield, Andries Bekker and latterly Eben Ezetbeth has added a new dimension to their lineout play, with the returning Matfield the equivalent of having your set piece coach on the field of play.
Ireland are equally gifted in this department, with Paul O’Connell performing a similar role, something new forwards coach Simon Easterby has already acknowledge and bought into. The contest out of touch today will be fascinating given that both sides place so much stock on the ensuing maul as a means of generating try-scoring opportunities or, at worst, penalties. The challenge for both sides is to stop the oppositions maul before it gains any momentum.
Ireland’s previous two forward coaches, Gert Smal and John Plumtree, drew heavily on their experience coaching in South Africa and as a consequence both sets of forwards operate from similar play books. Matfield has already put referee Romain Poite on notice that Ireland will look to sack the Springbok maul by illegal means. I suspect that could apply to both teams.
The presence of Poite could damage Ireland’s prospects of surviving the scrum battle given he is notorious for deciding early who has the dominant scrum — and is not for changing. It is imperative therefore that Ireland don’t yield an inch in the early engagements. The loss of Rory Best and Cian Healy along with a lack of recent game time for Mike Ross has left Ireland vulnerable.
This is a big day for Jack McGrath up against the vastly experienced Jannie du Plessis as he attempts to emerge from the shadow of Healy. On the bench Rodney Ah You is very much unproven while replacement hooker Richardt Strauss has played little or no competitive rugby of late. While I expect Ireland to compete on equal terms out of touch, any deterioration in the weather conditions will lead to more scrums. That is a cause for concern.
The one area where Ireland carry a distinct advantage going into this game is at half-back. With the possible exception of the New Zealand pairing, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are the leading combination in the game and carry a significant pedigree in terms of experience and understanding.
Murray is in the form of his life and complements the skill set Sexton brings to the table. Both are capable of running a game but one suspects that Murray, after a month of directing operations for Munster, will be happy to allow his senior partner dictate matters today.
Knowing Sexton’s temperament, he will be bristling with the attention focused on a relative novice in opposite number Handre Pollard coming into this contest and will be keen to show who is boss. It helps the Irish cause that South Africa are shorn their first and second choice scrum-halves in Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar with today’s incumbent, Francois Hougaard, having spent much of his career playing on the wing.
He offers Ireland the first point of attack with Pollard also likely to receive a warm welcome from the Irish back row. As you would expect from a former winger, Hougaard has lightning pace and needs to be policed around the fringes. Inexperienced they may be but last time out Hougaard and Pollard accounted for three tries between them against New Zealand.
Game management is going to be crucial today and Sexton needs to keep this Springbok pack pinned back in their own half of the field. His superior kicking game and ability to dictate field position will prove crucial. He must, however, ensure his wingers are offered the opportunity to contest in the air in order to regain possession. He will also be conscious of not kicking dead given the quality of the Springbok lineout.
For Ireland to have any chance of upsetting the odds today, they will have to be smarter and more accurate than their visitors. Murray hit the nail on the head during the week when commenting that if Ireland’s two best ball carriers in Sean O’Brien and Healy were available, they still wouldn’t be looking to run through South Africa but around them. New Zealand have perfected that for years by chasing the soft shoulder and using their stepping ability to keep the hands available in the tackle for the offload. Ireland must seek to do the same.
The offload is king when looking to put runners into space. Schmidt was brilliant at manufacturing those situations when in charge of Leinster and must similarly employ a mixture of subtlety and rugby smarts to find holes in this well-drilled Springbok defensive line.
They love to blitz. Their midfield trio get off the line extremely fast and close down the space on offer quickly. Further out Bryan Habana has made a bit of a habit of shooting up in search of the big hit and while he is often rewarded, at times it has left South Africa exposed in the wider channels with New Zealand and Australia profiting on more than one occasion. That represents an opportunity for Ireland in attack. The big question today is whether Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw will have the composure at this level with less time and space available to take advantage of any defensive blips in the Springbok defensive set-up.
As a pairing they are unlikely to achieve much by looking to truck it up in midfield and while Henshaw has the physical attributes, he has little experience of playing that game.
Ireland will employ the kick pass to take advantage of the space available out wide. With just five training sessions together it is a big ask for the new midfield combination to have developed any understanding but Schmidt has seen something in training over the last fortnight that he likes.
The easy option was to slot Gordon D’Arcy back into his familiar role, but, with limited opportunities available for experimentation before the World Cup, I admire Schmidt for trying something new.
Ireland need to figure out a way to match the physicality of the South Africans in the contact area without getting sucked into a brawl. That is the last thing they need. The visitors hold all the aces in terms of recent form, preparation, settled combinations and the confidence that stems from beating New Zealand last time out. That should be enough to see them over the line.