Jake White: Ireland are expected to beat the Boks after their heroics in New Zealand
Back in 2005, Clive Woodward came over to South Africa to visit me. Over a glass of red, I remember him saying, ‘You know the best model in world rugby is Ireland’s?’. I said, ‘What do you mean, Clive?’, he said, ‘Well, if you work it out, all of their players play locally, all of their players are managed by the union and they are looked after on and off the pitch and they have a provincial split that marries with their rich history’.
I had to agree and ever since, I’ve watched their progress closely. They move their players around the provinces like chess pieces, in order to benefit the greater good; Ireland. Joey Carbery to Munster, Robbie Henshaw to Leinster, Andrew Conway to Munster, I could go on. Their academies are also top notch and their school system is phenomenal. Look at Josh van der Flier. The player he was when he started and the player he is now. It’s a significant change. Their pathway is best in class
They’ve also recruited shrewdly from abroad for the betterment of the game. Think back to Doug Howlett and Jean de Villiers at Munster, and more recently Damien de Allende and CJ Stander, who went on to win 50 caps for Ireland. Up at Leinster, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park have thrived for both province and country, while Scott Fardy and Isa Nacewa have been incredible signings. Then you have Duane Vermeulen and Marcell Coetzee at Ulster, or Mack Hansen and Bundee Aki at Connacht. It’s so smart.
They are also ambitious. I was told it was the Irish provinces who pushed hardest for the South African franchises to join the URC because they saw it as a way they could improve the standard of their play. Stuart Lancaster said as much recently, when he talked out what they’d learnt on and off the field. Few can argue that the URC is a far more competitive and respected league now.
The one area Ireland have fallen short is the World Cup. For many, many years, Ireland have disappointed when competing for the grandest prize. The talk is they peak between World Cups, a bit like the All Blacks in the old days, and are yet to make it past the quarter-finals. This is why Saturday is such a watershed fixture. It’s the reigning World Champions, the Springboks, against one of the world’s form teams.
I was told the Springboks Test sold out from the moment they clinched the series in the summer and you’d expect Dublin to be close to running out of Guinness on Saturday such is the magnitude of this Test. Ireland are expected to win this game after their heroics in New Zealand, and they’ll be confident. That said, you don’t win World Cups the year before, but you can definitely lose them. There’s a chance for the Irish to get the monkey off their back, and that starts against South Africa. If they don’t manage it, however, doubts will creep in. They are one of the favourites for the World Cup but a lot of Irish rugby supporters will have seen this movie before and should they lose, the ghosts will start to rattle and the insecurities and pressure will start again.
There are so many subplots. The Leinster boys will be putting down a marker against the Stormers and Sharks, while the Boks won’t want to lose to a side who beat the All Blacks on their own turf. Then, of course, they play each other in the pool stages next year. It has every ingredient for a classic.
Turning to the Boks, I do think it was a masterstroke by Rassie Erasmus to call up Jason Jenkins. He hasn’t played a Test for four years, but he gets all the intellectual property gained from his time with Leinster and Munster 10 months out from the World Cup. I coached Jason at the Bulls, and to see what he has done at Leinster in a short space of time is impressive. Remember, most of Rassie’s coaches are from Munster. Felix Jones was there and so was Jacques Nienaber, so they’re not short of inside information on their World Cup rivals.
For Rassie, after being out with a ban, fans will ask, is he refreshed and full of new ideas? Despite injury, I think Pollard is still the main man, but Damian Willemse has always wanted to play at 10. By sending Manie Libbok and Sacha Mngomezulu back, and putting Willie Le Roux as 10 cover, it’s clear they back him. The Boks have invested a lot in him in the last few years and he’ll be up against Johnny Sexton who is playing some of the best rugby in his career. For Willemse, it is a huge test to see if he is going to be the understudy to Pollard, and he needs the experience. The old adage was that teams wanted to go to the World Cup with an average of 50-odd Tests but because of Covid, there will be a lot of Springbok players who don’t have that profile. People like Jasper Wiese, Jaden Hendrikse and Kurt-Lee Arendse. They will have to learn fast, and this Autumn is key to their progression.
Looking ahead to the rest of the Series, France will be up next. They have the expectation of hosting a World Cup and winning it because they have been one of rugby’s form teams, and are unbeaten in 10 games.
Mark my words though, there is significant pressure on France; the All Blacks won the World Cup in 1987, South Africa won the Cup in 1995, Australia lost the final in 2003 and the All Blacks won it again in 2011. It shows you why Les Bleus are seen as a team who are expected to progress deep into the competition. In fact, only England in 2015 failed to reach the knockout stages as hosts. That’s why it is such an important month because most sides usually have a four-year plan to build depth, or change the way they want to play, even with the same players, but that’s had to be recalibrated because of the pandemic.
This is where Rassie has to be careful. The All Blacks tried to replicate their 1987 win with an older team, and fell short in 1991, and it was the same for the Wallabies in 1995 after winning it in 1991. Rassie has already shown it can be done in 2018, taking the Boks to the final and winning it 20 months later – and don’t forget Kitch Christie managed to do it in 1994, when Ian McIntosh got fired, but it’s a perilous balance to maintain.
It’s funny because usually the narrative during the Autumn is that England is South African’s biggest game. Most fans would traditionally fly over to London for the weekend and try to be at that game. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still massive if you think about the history between the two, but now the lie of the land is slightly different. The whole emphasis is on these back-to-back Tests with Ireland and France. It promises to be an epic Autumn Series and everything could change over the next month. I cannot wait.