Ireland take one more step along the road in Dublin this evening when their credentials as one of the world’s top four teams are tested by old rivals South Africa.
There were times when this fixture would have been greeted by a sense of foreboding at the prospect of a Springbok steamroller rumbling down Lansdowne Road but though today’s visitors for this opening Test of November’s Guinness Series undoubtedly still pack a powerful punch, it is perhaps Allister Coetzee’s team that has more of a point to prove at the Aviva Stadium.
Having succumbed to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team, reduced to 14 men, at their hallowed Newlands in Cape Town in June 2016 and narrowly avoided a first series defeat on home soil on that tour, South Africa’s stock has slipped steadily in the subsequent 17 months.
Little could be read into this summer’s home series win over France but there were signs of a recovery in this year’s Rugby Championship until a 57-0 humiliation by the All Blacks. Losing the return to New Zealand on home soil by just a point has been greeted as some sort of redemption but that really just indicates the level to which South Africa have been reduced. When once they were considered the equals of the All Blacks they are now noted for their near misses against them.
Much like Ireland in 2013, in fact, which makes today’s encounter an intriguing one as the fourth-ranked home side faces the fifth-ranked in front of a sell-out Dublin crowd. Back in South Africa this will be seen as a further examination of the Springboks’ rejuvenation ahead of the arrival of Rassie Erasmus as SA Rugby’s director of rugby while for Ireland it is a chance to examine once more just how narrow the gap between them and the southern hemisphere giants has become since that epic, history-making win over the All Blacks in Chicago 371 days ago.
Schmidt’s team has struggled for consistency against tier-one rivals since that famous day at Soldier Field when Ireland put five tries past the world champions and survived a second-half onslaught to pull away to a 40-29 victory.
A loss in the rematch a fortnight later was followed by a win over Australia to round out 2016, only to lose the Six Nations opener in Scotland. Consecutive victories over Italy and France preceded a defeat in Wales only to turn around and end England’s Grand Slam dreams the following weekend.
After a successful summer tour and three straight wins over the United States and Japan, twice, the unbeaten run stands at four games but beating South Africa will be a darn sight tougher than the tier-two Eagles and Brave Blossoms.
So what Ireland will the supporters get tonight? The weather will not be replicating that unseasonably warm and sunny afternoon in Chicago, that’s for sure, with a cold, wet evening forecast for Dublin, more akin to the conditions for the Six Nations finale against Eddie Jones’s championship-winning side, which turned out to be a one-score, low-scoring victory.
Either way, any win over the Boks is to be celebrated and Schmidt has declared his wish to strengthen the depth of his squad ahead of the 2019 World Cup while taking another incremental step towards a more expansive gameplan.
“I think we continue to adjust,” the Ireland boss said of his hopes for the gameplan in this month’s three Tests. “In sport, there are no massive shifts in the way the game is played. The Fosbury Flop that came about as a massive transition (in the high jump), that doesn’t happen. There are little bits and pieces that just get a little bit of adjustment and we are looking to adjust little bits of our game, I suppose, session to session or camp or to camp or series to series and then just try to bed those in so we can play with a bit of variety and we can be a little innovative but we can be really accurate as well.”
How much Ireland will be allowed to move their gameplan forward will depend on their ability to stop the Boks doing what they enjoy best, using their massive physicality to overpower teams. With a combative Irish pack bolstered by the return of six Lions from the summer’s tour to New Zealand and that tour’s starting half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton as well as a centre pairing of debutant Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, set free at outside centre, there should be plenty of physicality from the home side to match anything Eben Etzebeth and his team can muster, particularly on Ireland’s turf.
It promises to be tight but Ireland should get their Guinness Series off, not necessarily to a flying start, but a winning one.
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