The battle for supremacy over the Springboks will extend all the way to the pre- and post-match functions at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, writes Donal Lenihan.
Having received the backing of World Rugby’s technical review group and subsequent unanimous approval from the board of the governing body to host the 2023 World Cup, South Africa can afford to take the high moral ground before next week’s defining vote by Council members that will, ultimately, decide the eventual destination of that event.
Right now South Africa are just about the last tier one side the IRFU would want to host. Anyone else and they would be busy making their case as to why, despite the findings of the technical review, that visiting union should apportion their key three votes to the Irish bid.
The South Africans are watching the Irish delegation like a hawk in advance of next week’s vote and know full well, on the back of statements made by bid chairman Dick Spring, chief executive Philip Browne and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, that Ireland are unhappy with aspects of the technical review’s findings and are still openly making their case to the voting council members.
Suggestions by South Africa that Ireland should do the decent thing and pull out of the race has only served to stoke the fire even more.
Given that a late change of heart by the IRFU in their voting preference in 2005 for the destination of the 2011 World Cup, when switching allegiance from South Africa to New Zealand proved very costly, SARU have since held a somewhat jaundiced view of their Irish colleagues.
On the back of that development, Ireland were hopeful that the New Zealand delegation would remember what the Irish did to aid their cause and assign their three votes to us. That is why the declaration last week by New Zealand CEO Steve Tew that they will support the South African bid was another blow to the Irish cause.
Self preservation is the overriding factor here. With two South African franchises now participating in the Guinness Pro14, the NZRU are bricking it at the prospect that South Africa might choose to abandon their commitment to southern hemisphere competitions when that accord comes up for review in a few years time in favour of a more lucrative European market, resulting in an expanded Champions Cup or even a Seven Nations Championship.
Ireland’s World Cup goose looks well and truly cooked but if, by some miracle, they emerge on top of the secret ballot that ultimately decides who gets to host the 2023 event, you can be sure the South Africans won’t take that decision lying down. That said, the technical review is only a part of the appointment process and serious doubts have already been cast over some of its findings. The democratic vote of the council members is the ultimate arbiter.
The big challenge for the Irish at next Wednesday’s vote in London is to survive the first count if none of the three bidders reach the magic number of 20 votes. With the country in third place eliminated at that stage, anything could happen. Unlikely but not impossible.
At least the chances of an Irish victory on the field of play this Saturday look a lot brighter. Many of the current Irish squad will be mindful that they let a first ever Irish series victory in South Africa behind them last year.
Ireland won the opening test in Cape Town, an historic first win over the Springboks on home soil, despite playing for 60 minutes with 14 men after CJ Stander was sent off. They led 19-3 at half-time in Johannesburg a week later but ran out of steam when playing at altitude compromised their efforts and would, in my opinion, have won the third test in Port Elizabeth if they had not lost Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw to injury at Ellis Park.
Ireland are stronger now than they were on that tour, especially with Johnny Sexton back calling the shots at out half. He missed that entire tour and well and all as Paddy Jackson played in his absence, he is not Sexton.
South Africa have been abysmal on the road over the last 12 months with last year’s November series in Europe seeing them lose on consecutive weekends to England, Italy, and Wales after an opening draw against the Barbarians. Their most recent game away from home was a record breaking 57-0 annihilation against New Zealand in Albany when even their ever-reliable set piece fell apart. Given the fallout from that humiliation, it was inevitable that a reaction would be forthcoming.
That is exactly what transpired when the Boks delivered their most rounded performance of the season before eventually going down by a single point to New Zealand in Cape Town in a riveting contest they should have won.
That display is the one Joe Schmidt will be dissecting closest when he sits down to plot the downfall of the visitors. The big question hanging over the Springboks is whether that last performance against the All Blacks was a one-off or is this comparatively inexperienced group of players capable of kicking on from here. We are about to find out.
With Ireland’s pool fixtures for the 2019 World Cup announced last week and bringing the proximity of that event into focus, Schmidt will be looking for clear evidence from some of the younger players that they will be genuine contenders for starting positions in two years’ time.
A number of areas stand out. The composition of the back three is set to alter dramatically over the course of the next year with Simon Zebo in exile and Rob Kearney’s worrying injury profile.
The omission of Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble from this squad offers a clear signal that Schmidt is presenting an opportunity for Jacob Stockdale, Darran Sweetnam, Andrey Conway, and Adam Byrne to audition for serious consideration come the Six Nations. Leinster’s highly impressive Jordan Larmour could also come into consideration by that stage.
With Donncha Ryan also out of the equation since becoming the first choice lock in last season’s Six Nations, Schmidt will be mindful of the fact that his options at second row look a little thin on the ground. Devin Toner and Iain Henderson are now the senior locking partnership but the next few weeks will prove crucial for Ultan Dillane and James Ryan.
Dillane was sensational in his debut season but injury hampered his progress since. While he completed a workmanlike 70 minutes for Connacht against Munster 10 days ago, he is yet to reproduce the dynamic carrying ability and athleticism we know he is capable of.
Ryan is closing in fast on Dillane for a bench position behind Henderson and Toner. Capped on the summer tour before playing for Leinster, I expect Ryan could well usurp Toner as a first choice by the time Japan 2019 rolls around.
He looked really comfortable when elevated from outside of the original matchday squad to make his Champions Cup debut against Montpellier recently and will only get better as he grows into his body over the next two years. I look forward to seeing him get some game time over the next three weekends.
Right now, the more important battle for supremacy over the Springboks is taking place in the administrative corridors of power as the Irish bid team burns ears all over the world. The result of that clash is likely to leave far more of a sour taste than anything that happens on the pitch Saturday evening.
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