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Neil de Kock: Well-balanced Ireland the ultimate litmus test for Springboks

By Neil de Kock
Damian de Allende. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The Springboks kick off their autumn tour against Ireland and France, who are ranked first and second in the world. I think it’s probably a good thing that we get them first up because the men in green and gold can lay down a marker with back-to-back victories.

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It’s a cracker start to the Autumn series. The Irish are the top team at the moment and they have got a great balance to their game. They attack as well as they defend and they are a physical bunch. In years gone by, the Boks probably thought they had the upper hand when it came to physicality but the Irish have muscled up. Ireland are a really well drilled team and head coach Andy Farrell has done a fantastic job with them.

Before heading off on their Northern Hemisphere sojourn, the Springboks spent three days with us at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. The mentality around the camp was really positive and you can see that they are a tight-knit group which is going to stand them in good stead.

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In terms of objectives they will set themselves on the end-of-year tour, they will be trying to win every game. It’s the last series so to speak before the World Cup in France next year and, especially with Ireland in their pool, the Springboks will be looking to go out there and build confidence. Jaques Nienaber made the point that this is an important time and these are the kind of games you want to play.

The last time the Springboks played against Ireland in Dublin they lost 38-3 in 2017 when Allister Coetzee was still at the helm. Fast forward five years and the current crop have been together for a significant amount of time since the last World Cup. The Boks’ starting XV for Saturday boasts 710 Test caps, with 211 in the backline and 499 among the forwards. It’s been proven over time that teams and combinations that play a lot of minutes together more often than not perform well. The names in the Bok pack roll off the tongue now and you are not guessing who the starters will be. It gives guys confidence and they can go out there and play without the fear of an axe hanging over their head. Like the Irish, the Boks have championed consistency in selection and when I last spoke to Andy Farrell I said to him, “You guys are doing so well,” and he replied tongue-in-cheek by saying that, “You are only ever four Tests away from being fired!”

It’s fair to say that the Boks boast more experience among their forwards and it’s a little bit trickier sometimes with the backs. Damian Willemse is back in at flyhalf and has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. On his outside, Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel reprise their roles in the midfield, with Lukhanyo Am out and still recovering from knee surgery. He will be missed because he is one of the best rugby players on the planet at the moment but Jesse will be so keen to get a consistent run in that starting line-up. He is a different type of player to Lukhanyo but that is not by any means disrespectful. Kriel is much more physically-robust and is also good defensively. In De Allende and Kriel, the Boks have two big, physical ball carriers capable of doing damage. From bruising ball carriers to players of a smaller stature, Cheslin Kolbe is back in the fold and will start his first Test at fullback which allows Kurt-Lee Arendse to slot in on the right wing.

Ireland will definitely target them aerially at the Aviva Stadium. The Australians did it quite effectively against us but Kolbe punches above his weight. Even though he is a short guy, he gets up in the air and is effective. The same can be said of Kurt-Lee but they can still expect a barrage of high balls onto them throughout the Test match in Dublin. Nevertheless, the Boks will have plans to try to counter it against the Irish hosts.

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I saw Johnny Sexton’s comments earlier this week that Ireland are not number one until they win the World Cup. The reality is that the Springboks are the underdogs – with Ireland having won three of the last five meetings – but they always react pretty positively to a challenge of this nature. Performance-wise and consistency-wise it’s fair to say that Ireland and France are the top two teams at the moment and it’s a real tussle between those two in my mind. It’s up to the Springboks to upset the world order.

For the Boks to prosper against Ireland, they need to disrupt their set-piece and especially their lineout. The Boks also have to assert their physicality in the collisions and at the breakdown. Ireland are most dangerous when they get good flow to their game so the Boks will aim to compete at the breakdown and slow the ball down. In contrast, Ireland will look to speed the game up and not get sucked into an arm wrestle.

Following an 11-year career with Saracens, which saw him earn 264 caps, Neil de Kock now works in the rugby division at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. De Kock, who featured in 10 Test matches for the Springboks, provides RugbyPass with expert insight and opinion focusing on South Africa.

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