Never mind the quality...

PERHAPS we are getting a little carried away. Seven days ago Australia and New Zealand showed the way forward for rugby with an exhilarating display of expansive rugby that had fans and pundits alike drooling.

Australia’s 26-24 victory after James O’Connor’s conversion of his own try gave the match a thrilling conclusion with the last kick of the game in Hong Kong while the quality of play throughout, save for some poor New Zealand tactical kicking, raised the bar considerably for coaches and players around the world.

Ireland have ambitions of joining the Wallabies and All Blacks at that altitude but no-one should expect the dawning of a golden age of running rugby when Declan Kidney’s team begins its new life at the Aviva Stadium with an inaugural Test against world champions South Africa.

For one thing, there is too much business to take care of for both sides in Dublin this evening.

Both have had disappointing years, with Ireland losing five games in a row, three of them Test matches, and the Springboks managing just one victory in their six Tri-Nations encounters this summer. The Irish will want to mark their return to their redeveloped headquarters for the first time in three years with a victory, while Peter de Villiers’ side are seeking a first win in the capital since 2000 to avoid a fourth defeat in a row here.

Throw in a 50th cap for Gordon D’Arcy and the possibility of a 100th for fly-half Ronan O’Gara, if he is called off the bench to replace starting No. 10 Jonny Sexton, and there is the capacity for plenty of pomp and ceremony which an Irish defeat would just not suit.

Furthermore, the road to the 2011 World Cup starts here, with de Villiers in desperate need of some job security if he is to plot the Springboks’ title defence in 10 months’ time and Kidney needing to get his masterplan back on track after the dip that followed the 2009 Grand Slam.

So while it is just an autumn international, there is a lot more riding on this than a dead rubber Bledisloe Cup game on a warm evening in jolly Honkers.

Kidney intimated as much on Tuesday when he unveiled perhaps the strongest team at his disposal.

“It will be physical, as it always is,” the Ireland coach said.

“It will be like a final, in that both sides just want to get that win under their belt.

“The physicality will be huge and obviously it means a huge amount to us to be back. Just even coming up Lansdowne Road today to the Aviva Stadium was special and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

“This is like coming home and to be part of that is special. It’s the oldest international ground in the world and just to say that is a huge sentence and to be a part of that is a hugely special occasion.”

Today, then, is not the day for experimenting with fancy, running rugby. As Ireland and Lions wing Tommy Bowe said in Wednesday’s Irish Examiner, that is still an exciting work in progress for Kidney’s capable group of players and Springboks captain Victor Matfield said as much yesterday when asked if the changing style of the game meant the Northern Hemisphere teams were falling behind their rivals south of the equator.

“It’s difficult to say it’s northern and southern,” Matfield said. “There’s a difference between how the All Blacks play and how the Aussies play. There’s a difference between how England play and how the Welsh play. So it’s up to every team to make a decision to play how they think the game should be played.

“I think we all know with the new law interpretations that it’s nice to keep the ball in hand and keep it for longer, so you need to adapt to that but everything else is still in the game. You still need to be able to drive, your kicking game is still very important to get out of your own half. All those things are very important, it’s just, you have to make a decision about how you want to play.

“But it’s not something we’re focusing on. We’re playing Ireland here this week and we haven’t won here for 10 years so all we’re focusing on is how Ireland play, the way we play and we need to get a result on Saturday.”

The message is clear, the explosive wing Bryan Habana and company in the South African backline will be used only sporadically in attack.

That is not to say it won’t be a titanic clash at the Aviva. On a night forecast to be cold and breezy, Ireland will start as narrow favourites to make it four wins in a row over a Boks side missing 13 front-line players, including skipper Jon Smit, centres Wynand Olivier and Jacques Fourie and back row star Schalk Burger.

Yet they still possess big guns with Bismarck du Plessis at hooker, Tendai ‘the Beast’ Mtwawarira and Jannie du Plessis forming the front row to give a new-look Irish equivalent of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tony Buckley a stiff examination.

Matfield partners Bakkies Botha in a formidable second row to give the Boks a very strong front five while that double act will also have ensured some extra homework for Donncha O’Callaghan and Mick O’Driscoll from forwards coach Gert Smal, a former member of the Springboks backroom staff, heading into a tough lineout battle.

The breakdown will be another key area with the Boks normally excellent at ruck time but facing a Northern Hemisphere referee in Nigel Owens of Wales in these days of differing interpretations from officials.

Both that and South Africa’s late arrival could play into the hands of a revved-up Ireland eager to perform on their glittering new stage. A tight match and narrow Irish victory beckons in what promises a grand occasion. One, in fact, worthy of a full house, but that’s another story.

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