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FEATURE Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?
3 weeks ago

Whatever happens in the climactic two-match Test series between South Africa and Ireland next month, it is fair to say there will be plenty of needle, and maybe even a few ‘afters’ to be distributed between the top two rated nations in world rugby.

Ireland started the 2023 World Cup as the No 1 ranked side globally, the Springboks entered the arena as defending world champions. The men in green were the only team to beat their counterparts from the Republic, by 13 points to eight in the ‘final’ of Pool B. But where Ireland fell at the quarter-final hurdle, as they have done so often in the past, the Bokke remained bloodied but unbowed, bullocking their way past all-comers to a repeat triumph.

That group stage defeat still rankles in South African memories, and second row Eben Etzebeth testified to that frustration in an interview with The Rugby Pod’s Jim Hamilton a few short weeks ago: “I remember what I said to you… You shake the guys’ hands, and probably 12 out of the 23 [Irish players] when I shook their hands told me, ‘See you guys in the Final’.

Faf de Klerk
South Africa and Ireland played out a titanic battle in last year’s World Cup (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

“We were going to play France and they were going to play New Zealand and my immediate thought was, ‘Are these guys seriously not even thinking about the All Blacks?’

“I was just like, ‘Surely they can’t [mean it]?’ I mean we would never say that because we knew we had the host nation, and we knew we had to pitch up to beat France in their backyard. Yeah, it just felt like they were just so, so confident saying things like that, ‘See you in the Final’ when you knew you had got the mighty All Blacks coming in a World Cup quarter-final.

“It’s good to be confident but you can never be arrogant in this game because that’s the thing about rugby, you can have the best season and you can have one slip-up, or one missed tackle, and a guy puts you on your arse. That is the beauty of this game – you are never on top forever.”

That is the dictionary definition of ‘needle’; knowing somewhere deep in your heart that your opponents think they have had the best of you, and that you may not have the chance to do anything about it before the end of the tournament.

At present, the odds are unquestionably shifting in favour of the Bokke. The grandest of ironies is that it is the presence of South Africa’s world cup-winning head coach at the province which supplies most of the bullets for Andy Farrell to fire, which is making it happen.

The players from those two nations – Ireland and South Africa – will still feel they are part of the best team on the planet, eight months later. They will require crystal-clear evidence, proof-positive that their antagonists are superior. Both will need a 2-0 series victory for the claim to be credible and even then, it will probably not be believed.

At present, the odds are unquestionably shifting in favour of the Bokke. The grandest of ironies is that it is the presence of South Africa’s world cup-winning head coach at the province which supplies most of the bullets for Andy Farrell to fire, which is making it happen.

Jacques Nienaber was supposed to be the final piece of the jigsaw when he arrived as the much-heralded replacement for Stuart Lancaster as Senior Coach at Leinster. The defensive mastermind would bring steel without the ball and add a winning mentality at the pointy end of competitions. In the event, the Dublin-based province lost in the European Champions Cup final to Toulouse instead of La Rochelle, and they were bundled out of the URC knockouts at the semi-final stage by Jake White’s Bulls.

Blue Bulls
The bulk of Ireland’s team were on the losing side for Leinster when they were downed by the Bulls in Pretoria (Photo Shaun Roy/Getty Images)

Ex-Munster lock turned TV pundit Donncha O’Callaghan may have been feeling the East coast-West coast rivalry, and the ‘needle’ of provincial friction as keenly as Etzebeth, when he hit on a number of sore spots on the head in his post-match commentary on RTE:

“[Leinster] got it wrong. They got it wrong again. It’s brilliant using 50 players but when it comes to cup final rugby, you need to win it – and you need to have a team.

“And we saw this team, star-studded with internationals, and they were lost on the road because they’re not used to doing it [winning away matches]. So, that is a flaw from management,

“The attack was blunt today, but it’s been blunt all season. If you look at it, it doesn’t look connected, and it doesn’t look like there’s ownership from the key decision makers – being your  No 9 and No 10.

Leinster are one of the best-resourced teams, not only in club rugby but in world rugby, and they just have not delivered. People leave them off. Media leave them off… They need to be held accountable, not just for this performance but their performances over the last while.

Donncha O’Callaghan

“Leinster are one of the best-resourced teams, not only in club rugby but in world rugby, and they just have not delivered. People leave them off. Media leave them off… They need to be held accountable, not just for this performance but their performances over the last while.

“That will be damaging for Irish rugby. The whole of South Africa is going to jump up and say, ‘look what our Bulls team did to this national team’. We are going to pay the price on the summer tour.”

The raw stats tend to back up O’Callaghan’s claims. Leinster were ranked 3rd on defence [tries conceded] during the 2022-2023 URC under Lancaster’s stewardship, and there has been no obvious improvement one season later with Nienaber in charge. At the same time, some of the attacking stats have begun to slip: average points scored [from 32 to 29 per game], average tries [from 4.6 to 4.2], and number of rucks built [from 97 to 88]. The gains at the defensive breakdown, where opposition ruck-speed has ballooned out from 3.8 seconds per ruck in 2022-23 to a league-leading 4.2 seconds one season later, have been cancelled by a drop in offensive cleanout efficiency – an average 3.1 seconds per ruck in 2022-23 to 3.5 seconds in 2023-24.

Leinster were magnificently supported by their fans but lost narrowly in a number of disappointing high-profile losses by Irish teams (Photo By Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The most attack-minded franchise in Ireland has gotten both slower and more defensive under Nienaber, and it is impossible to describe what has happened as an improvement – particularly with attack coach Andrew Goodman leaving Leinster to take up the same role with Ireland at the end of the summer.

It creates a host of thorny questions for head coach Andy Farrell. Does he persist with Simon Easterby’s softer up-and-out defensive pattern, with Nienaber’s up-and-in now ingrained in the rump of Dublin-based players? Will Ireland’s attack structure start to deteriorate like Leinster’s, without its chief architect [Lancaster] to fine tune the detail? Can any of Leinster’s would-be national No 10’s [the Byrne brothers, Ciaran Frawley or Sam Prendergast] now expected to develop into world-class game-managers in the capital city?

The recent URC semi-final against the Bulls amply pointed up the problems. Leinster’s attack from lineout, the pride of Ireland under Lancaster, went up in smoke in the harsh sunshine at Loftus Versveld:



The first phase is promising, with the ball going out to Robbie Henshaw and then bending back in on a carry over the gain-line by Dan Sheehan. Two phases later, the attacking shape has been lost: it is by no means certain whether the pass from base is directed at Josh van der Flier [in the red hat] or Ross Byrne standing nearby. Henshaw and Garry Ringrose do their best to clean up the mess but the next breakdown is under-resourced and the Bulls force a turnover scrum.


Leinster drop 1

There is another terrific run by Henshaw to set the wheels in motion, but total clarity about the target for the pass on the next play is lacking. The ball springs loose and what should be a plus for the Irish province turns into a big minus instead.
Attacking shape in general play suffered from the same absence of precision and a clear sense of purpose:


Leinster drop 2


In the first clip, Ross Byrne is flat-footed when he receives the pass from prop Andrew Porter, and Dan Sheehan has already moved past him by the time he is ready to deliver the ball to the Ireland rake. In the second, after a long break downfield by James Lowe, Leinster are in ideal shape on attack. They can utilize the full width of the field to the right with three men out of shot to the touchline, while the Bulls are in disarray on defence. Instead, the ball is taken tamely into contact and the chance evaporates in the thin Pretoria air.
The match suggested that Leinster had lost their once fine nose for attacking opportunity. In the middle of the first half, they won back two of their own high kicks successively but still found nothing better to do than kick the ball straight out of play on the third phase:


With Bulls’ full-back Willie Le Roux out of play on the other side of the field it is three-on-three if a break is made. Jimmy O’Brien has Ryan Baird and Lowe outside him for company, but the full-back only has eyes for the touchline, and putting boot to ball.

There has been a palpable degree of needle between South Africa and Ireland ever since the World Cup in 2023. The Irish were only side to beat the Springboks in that tournament, in a full-blooded encounter at the Stade de France to decide the king of pool B. The Bokke went on to claim their second consecutive World Cup victory, while Andy Farrell’s men were knocked out at the quarter-final stage.

It is likely that both nations still believe that they are best team on the planet, and that will give the two-Test series in July an added edge. But an Ireland outfit so heavily-dependent on its Leinster core-group has not been helped by the appearance of World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber in Dublin. Ultimately, the structure of the defence has changed without improving, while sharpness on attack has deteriorated. It promises to be a rousing double-header, but the odds are stacked in South Africa’s favour.


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Rugby 10 days ago

Looking forward to the second game. Still world No 1 and 2 in rankings. Ireland have picked a hard tough set of 8 in their scrum. Last week it was like watching two diamonds trying to scratch each other for 80 mins. I have been impressed with the mould and shape of Ireland, their design. They will not look back and I think they will be continue to be a force, yet they need another, BOD, WOOD or SEXTON or two.

Both the Boks and Ireland have a design that optimises their functionality. The Boks are evolving their functionality and we are lucky to be watching such a team in our time. Dr Erasmus has introduced so much innovation and rugby smarts. So interesting to see the new playbook the boks are using. Just another tool in the set for them.

The world game shape is changing this year, especially no long kick battles, dupont rule. I see the stat of some of the the teams that played last week - Boks, Ireland, ABs (the pacific Lions) and England. the Abs kicked the most.

Don M 17 days ago

Thanks Nick and everyone who contributed to this thread. It’s been a fascinating read.

Jon 22 days ago

I notice on your contributor page this article is listed as being the ‘world title’ fight, was that your own title you/name you submitted it with?

Gerald 25 days ago

Nick, great article. Was is so good is that years ago these mid year games had no real interest as the ABs and SH sides were way ahead. Professionalism and coaching has improved the Irish, Scottish and English sides, and France never treated these mid year games with respect as always sent a 3 rd team down south.
We now have proper competitive games which is great. Must admit the Scottish have sent a barbarians side to North America!
I watched a fair amount of Super Rugger - I am a Saffa- and I am see the NZ sides have taken their lessons and their forward play was massively physical, their scrum much improved, and the English are walking into a massive clash. Vern Cotter set the tone at the Blues. The final and semi finals were huge games. Beware all. Rassie has added a new approach to both coaches and players. Going to be interesting to see how this plays out. Let the games begin- and may the Proteas stand up in the final of the T20 🙌

SteveD 25 days ago

Without getting too emotional about it (moi?) whatever happens in the two tests, I reckon we are going to see some incredibly good rugby from two teams who play the game outstandingly well. Now, you may say ‘the Boks?!’ judging on past performance, especially back in the RWC, but don't forget they're not really used to playing together in the wet, like they had to in France, so we'll (hopefully) finally be able to see their fantastic backs throwing the ball around. But let's also not forget that Ireland will be playing away, which never seems to be taken into consideration and why the RWC is really the only true test of who is best in the world. And let's finally never forget that Ireland were one of the main protagonists in getting our SA teams out of the moronic Super Rugby and into the N-S orbit and be very grateful to them! The URC has to be the best example of what a fantastic game rugby union is and grateful that it seems (apart from in England) to be doing bloody well.

Heathen 26 days ago

Etzebeth being ridiculously harsh. The Irish lads in saying ‘we’ll see you in the final’ were just being nice to SA. Saying you’ve lost but you’re brilliant, this isn’t the end of your world cup, you’ll still make the final and we’ll see each other again then.

Derek Murray 26 days ago

The attack is clearly blunter but defences must be prepared for a lot of what they deliver. Adding in Aki makes a difference and a non-Leinster flyhalf.

Also, I usually like Etzebeth but that mouthful he dropped is total garbage. Many teams would have said the same after beating the champions in the round robin. And he knows it

Billy 26 days ago

Ireland and Leinster’s complex attacking patterns took an age to develop that involved getting everyone on board on the same page. And this worked for the kinds of players that Ireland produces. Fit, aerobic and hardworking. Nienaber comes from a different system and different kind of player. Big forwards, small very quick wings and back in between. That’s a disadvantage as Ireland doesn’t have the speed to play catch up which was clear against Toulouse. Also, it would take awhile for Leinster to switch from what they were and what they are being asked to become. Under Farrell, I think Ireland will acquit themselves well and won’t be surprised if they take one game and it must be the first one. Boks get momentum in that one and the 2nd will be a drubbing.

carlos 26 days ago

Defense wins championships. Oh wait. You have to score points too. I’ve been preaching for decades that teaching defense is easier than teaching attack. Scoring is harder to teach in many sports.

In soccer, ten guys hanging from the crossbar and one in front won’t win you regularly.

Mitch 26 days ago

Will the Boks revert to stereotype or will see some of Tony Brown's fingerprints over their style in this series? Malakai Fekitoa liked bits of what he saw on attack from them.

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