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So-called 'world's best' Ireland set for Springbok reality check

By Daniel Gallan
Ireland players, including Jack Crowley, left, and Caelan Doris, centre, after the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The kegs of Guinness have been emptied and the confetti has all been swept away. Now that Ireland have secured a second consecutive Six Nations title, attention turns to a heavyweight clash that will categorically prove which team is the undisputed best in the world: Andy Farrell’s Irish, or the double world champion Springboks.

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It seems neither group really wants the label just yet. Despite Finn Russell, Steve Borthwick, Sam Warburton and a host of prominent voices hailing Ireland as the game’s number one team, Farrell himself has shifted the accolade south to the Springboks. For his part, Rassie Erasmus swatted aside the conversation in a recent press conference.

Fine. If they won’t get into it, we will. So let us pick at the entrails and cast our gaze into a crystal ball. A lot can change in four months, and no doubt these words will blow up in my face if any of the predictions below prove to be even slightly off. With that said, here’s why South Africa will claim a two-nil series victory and, in doing so, end an eight-year winless streak against Ireland.

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Nigel Owens about the state of South African refereeing

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Nigel Owens about the state of South African refereeing

Let’s start with our feet in the past. When Ireland arrived in South Africa in June 2016 uncertainty hung heavy in the air. These were not the titanic iterations we have today but two groups finding their feet. Joe Schmidt’s tourists – with Farrell serving as defence coach – had spluttered their way through that year’s Six Nations campaign, finishing third with only two wins. What’s more, the previous year was marked by a disappointing quarter-final exit at the World Cup.

South Africa were a work in progress. This was Allister Coetzee’s first assignment as head coach. In a squad of 31, 17 would go on to win the World Cup in 2019 though 20 players had fewer than 15 Test caps under their belt.

Ireland won a shambolic opening game in Cape Town, 20-26, their first ever victory over the Springboks in South Africa. But that only woke the bear. The Boks won the next two Tests and with them the series. These weren’t blockbuster performances but, at the time, it felt as if some sort of cosmic balance had been restored.

Ryan Baird
Dublin , Ireland – 16 March 2024; Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony, right, and Ryan Baird after the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
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That is what the Springboks do; more often than not, they win games they’re supposed to win. When a team triumphs by a solitary point on three consecutive occasions to claim a World Cup, it is South Africa, and no one else, that gets over the line. Dismiss this as happenstance, but then take it up with New Zealand’s Will Jordan who recently said that it was “no fluke”.

All the great teams have this aura. The English of 2003 and the All Blacks under Richie McCaw had the same sense of indomitability. Ireland, as they’ve shown, don’t quite have that yet. They offered glimpses of it by winning a series in New Zealand and then a Six Nations grand slam a year later, but another quarter-final exit at the World Cup proved they couldn’t rise when weighted down by expectation. Their loss to England this month further enhances this argument.

Which means they’ll arrive in South Africa having received a reality check but still buoyed by the hype that surrounds them. Hype, however, marches in lockstep with pressure. Only one of our protagonists seemingly has the stuff to cope with it.

Of course there are more pragmatic rugby reasons why the Springboks should be confident. Home crowds play a role in elite sport and the South African public will be baying for what they would regard as retribution for Ireland’s hubris. They’ve already claimed Ireland’s unofficial fan song as their own, bastardising it, twisting it to offer fealty to Erasmus. Now, having bought every ticket available in Pretoria and Durban, they’ll create an intimidating atmosphere for their guests, especially at Loftus which, at the best of times, is as welcoming as a Roman slaughterhouse.

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Willie Le Roux
Willie Le Roux has ensured a respectful handover of the Springboks’ No 15 jersey to Damian Willemse (Photo by Michael Steele – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Then there’s the altitude. Not a factor on the coast in Durban but it will come into play in Pretoria. Given this is (criminally) a two-Test series, that first encounter could be decisive, forcing the loser to chase the game in the second. With South Africa able to effectively field a second pack, it is easy to envisage tiring Irish forwards running out gas in the closing stages. Unless they have a lead come the 65th minute, they could get blown away.

Speaking of second packs, Ireland adopted a six-two bench split in three of their five Six Nations matches. It worked against Italy and France (who also went with the same strategy) but combusted against England. This was seen as a victory for the spirit of rugby against the impending suffocation caused by lumbering meaty men. This is overly simplistic. Instead, the focus should be on Ireland’s backs not having enough versatility to cope when tasked with a positional shift, and the lack of an all-round game from some key forwards.

Fixture
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6 Jul 24
Ireland
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This is not a problem for South Africa. Damian Willemse, like Frans Steyn before him, can play in six positions in the backline. Canan Moodie can operate across five positions. Grant Williams is faster than most Test wingers. Pieter-Steph du Toit and Franco Mostert could play in either the back or second row. What’s more, South Africa’s penchant for the six-two seems to be a ploy catered to their strengths and not one born out of the desire to shoe-horn in an ageing captain. With respect to the great Peter O’Mahony, the extra forward on Ireland’s bench appeared to be a counterweight to his waning powers.

England proved that if you get in the face of the Irish if you cram bodies in their well-oiled machine and stifle their continuity you can beat them. No other team disrupts the opposition like South Africa. They remain the masters of the rush defence and, unlike their World Cup game against Ireland, when they stubbornly refused to go to the line-out as if they were holding back cards, they’ll let rip with everything they’ve got in July.

Because this series matters to South Africa. For more than a decade the Springboks lived in the shadow of the All Blacks. Now, with two World Cups and a British & Irish Lions series, they’ve forged a dynasty. Or, should I say forging? They’re not done yet. Taking the scalp of a truly brilliant Irish team would underline their supremacy. And there is nothing more dangerous in rugby than a Springboks side on a mission.

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66 Comments
M
MattJH 86 days ago

Very interested to see what the Boks attack is like with Tony Brown involved.
That man has an incredible rugby mind, and the South African backs are absolute weapons.
It may take a few games or even a season or two before we really start seeing the results, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ireland got a bit of a shock.

R
Red and White Dynamight 87 days ago

noone does hubris quite like the Safas

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Flankly 87 days ago

Ireland have the structures and discipline to stay in the game against SA. But their attack has lost its edge, partly through lack of Sexton, but mostly through defenses figuring them out.

If Ireland dish up the average stuff in SA that they produced in the 6N they will be making losing speeches about lessons learned and opportunities to improve.

Hopefully the pundits will keep telling Ireland that they are fabulously good. The Boks love over-confident opponents.

f
finn 88 days ago

It’ll be two close fought games. If I had to bet i’d bet on the boks but that’s only due to home advantage, and its not a prediction I have much confidence in.

What we do know is that boks fans will be ungracious in victory, defeat, or draw. Honestly I wish this series wasn’t happening because we will learn nothing, the rugby probably won’t be hugely engaging, and we will be reminded of how unpleasant so many rugby fans are.

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Liam 88 days ago

Well they are the best, best chokers under pressure for how many world cups in a row. Can't argue with it. Fair plaudits.

D
Dan 88 days ago

Ireland beat them in the RWC and barely turned up for that match.

The obvious difference is Wayne Barnes won’t be there so the Boks will be missing their best player.

The ignorant third world educated thickos will somehow be shocked by the impending results.

That will be the best part of it all. What happens when you listen to your pundits spur utter 💩 alll the time - and believe it as gospel.

m
mjp89 88 days ago

There's no doubt that these two teams are the best in the world. Who is better is really kind of up in the air and it's fairly 50-50. I would say the Boks are a marginally better team but there's very little in it.

Worst fans in the world, though? That's a no contest victory for the Saffas.

L
Lou Cifer 88 days ago

Rumours of an under strength Irish team being sent over is gaining momentum….I really hope it ain’t🙄 Rassie said he will tinker after this series, so I hope Farrell does the same!

R
Rob 88 days ago

Irish forwards in recent years have been insanely fit and well conditioned, let’s not forget that only one team in the world has beaten the “dreaded” 7-1 split without any backline injuries playing a part. With a new attack coach coming in for both teams and new players phasing in should be a very interesting series for both teams win or lose

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