If Ireland charge out of the blocks after four months of international inactivity, this callow Springbok side will struggle to cope, writes Donal Lenihan
The most striking aspect of the South African touring party announced by coach Allister Coetzee for this November series is the sheer lack of international experience in the squad. Of the 34 players included, five are uncapped, 11 have 10 or less caps and only four can boast more than 30 international appearances.
The inexperience of the South African back division today, with 101 caps in total is astonishing, with centre Damien de Allende their most capped player on 27. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton boast more caps between them (123) than the entire Springbok backline.
This Bok side is suspect in a number of key areas, short on confidence and vulnerable to the type of scrutiny Ireland will seek to expose them to. What they do possess, as one would expect from such a young squad, is a massive desire to succeed and that makes them dangerous.
Unlike Ireland, they also have a lot of recent game time with a reasonably settled squad.
Then again so did New Zealand when they met Ireland this time last year. If Ireland manages to charge out of the blocks after four months of international inactivity in the manner achieved in Chicago then this callow Springbok side will struggle to cope.
For years South African teams used their considerable advantage in the physical stakes to bully and pummel opposition to a pulp. The advent of professionalism has helped to close that particular gap but it is in the technical aspects of the game that Ireland have an advantage over today’s opponent.
South African rugby faces all kinds of challenges at present, not least a player drain, driven in many instances by a race quota imposed in selection. Put simply, they never get to field their strongest team these days, even from players still plying their trade domestically.
South Africa’s lineout hasn’t been quite as well-oiled as you would expect of late, especially given the presence of three-man mountains in Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jäger and Pieter-Steph du Toit. Their scrum has also suffered, due in no small measure to an injury crisis at tight head. The return to action of Coenie Oosthuizen should help in that respect.
To undermine the fragile confidence of the tourists, Ireland need to attack them at source and seek to put their famed set-piece under pressure. The best way to expose a vulnerable back division is to put them on the back foot and attack the advantage line.
Even without the ball, Ireland can impose themselves by delivering the type of suffocating line speed that South Africa find so difficult to cope with. In possession, Ireland’s kicking game also has the capacity to wreak havoc.
It was no surprise that Coetzee zeroed in on the big advantage Ireland carry at half-back when he rocked up for his opening press conference in Dublin last Monday. The prospect of Sexton and Murray raining bombs down on a callow Springbok back three with a mere 23 caps between them must be keeping the South African coach awake at night.
Facilitating players on the wing has become a major part of being able to satisfy the quota system that SARU are seeking to implement at present. As a consequence, the backfield has been a bit of a revolving door with new players coming in as the previous incumbents were exposed to an alarming degree.
Raymond Rhule, for example, looked a decent attacking player in Super Rugby with the Cheetahs but was ruthlessly exposed in defence and when the ball was put in behind him in that 57-0 mauling by New Zealand. He was gone by the return fixture.
Dillyn Leyds is the latest to be handed that responsibility along with Courtnall Skosan and Andres Coetzee with the latter two at least having a decent semblance of understanding as both play for the Golden Lions.
Part of Ireland’s strategy will be to shift the big Springbok pack around the field with Murray and Sexton pulling the strings. At 6’5” new Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale will be tasked with challenging the Springbok’s back three in the air and making those kicks as contestable as possible. It also enables Ireland to establish field position as he shepherd’s the recipient - if they do manage to win the aerial battle - into touch.
Since coming on board after the 2015 World Cup, Coetzee has sought to establish some sort of continuity and authority at half-back by sticking with Elton Jantjies at out-half. While he has been brilliant at times in leading the Lions to successive Super Rugby finals, he has failed to convince at international level. It hasn’t helped his cause that he has been paired with a variety of scrum-halves over that period. He has benefitted, however, from having his Lions partner Ross Cronje in situ in recent outings.
The prospect of Bundee Aki starting this game to make his international debut has already attracted enough comment to last a career. Like it or not the New Zealander satisfies the criteria to play for Ireland and, given the potential improvements he could bring to Ireland’s attacking game, Joe Schmidt would have been remiss in not utilising his talents.
His midfield partnership with Robbie Henshaw was central to Connacht’s march towards securing the Guinness PRO12 title in 2016 and offers fresh possibilities for the years ahead. Aki’s Super Rugby experience with the Waikato Chiefs against several South African provincial sides will also prove valuable today as he seeks to transfer good club form to the international arena.
Aki has massive explosive power and plays the game on the gain line. His ability to stay alive in the tackle and free his hands offers huge opportunities for others to play off him. Picture Sean O’Brien hovering off a line out, running a hard line off Aki. Likewise, Andrew Conway and Stockdale should be offered a licence to roam and play a trailing line off him.
Henshaw will also be energised by Aki’s presence as it offers him a little more freedom to show that he too has more to offer than carrying the ball into contact. Sexton will also be keen to explore how his famed wraparound moves might create even more havoc off a player capable of sitting defenders on their backsides.
Interestingly, after two years of trial and experimentation, Coetzee has reverted today to the midfield partnership of De Allinde and Jesse Kriel that he inherited from Heyneke Meyer after the 2015 World Cup.
Both are far more experienced campaigners now but, with Kriel having established an exciting and highly effective partnership with Jan Serfontein throughout the entirety of the Rugby Championship, Serfontein’s decision not to make himself available for this tour after his recent move to Montpellier could not have been worse timed. Such is Coetzee’s lot.
Despite a first ever test win on South African soil last season, Ireland returned home from that tour feeling rather underwhelmed. This squad should have gleaned enough from that experience to finish the job today.
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