O'Driscoll stresses need for hosts to fire on all cylinders in battle to counter Springboks' power
Published 06/11/2010 | 05:00
WHEN the All Blacks come to town in a couple of weeks, Ireland will face a different psychological test to the one they take on against South Africa this evening.
While there is a healthy respect in the Irish camp for the world champions, the sight of the Springbok crest does not have quite the same effect on Irish bravado as the silver fern and black jersey does.
Ireland field nine players who toured South Africa with the Lions last year, when, despite a pronounced disadvantage in preparation time, the tourists came agonisingly close to a series win and played the better rugby throughout.
Emboldened by that knowledge, the Irish contingent from that expedition went into the Croke Park showdown a few months later full of determination and confidence and Ireland's 15-10 victory was carefully planned and well executed.
Last year, the Springboks arrived into Dublin with a strut worthy of world champions who had beaten the Lions, won the Tri Nations, produced the Super 14's top side and were about to be named as Team of 2009.
This time around, the swagger is gone and they sidled into town a mere two days before battle commences, heaping all the expectation on Ireland with the talk of their injury crises, coaching wrangles and low morale following a deeply disappointing Tri Nations.
It is not dissimilar to the situation that faced Ireland on last summer's tour, when they were without a host of frontline players and coming off the back of a poor end to their Six Nations campaign, when Scotland denied them a Triple Crown.
The statistics will record that tour as a failure and three defeats from three outings backs that up but, as well as decent performances, there was a lot of pride shown on that trip in adverse circumstances. We can expect the Springboks to use similar motivational tools this evening and for all their absentees, they can still call on some top-quality performers.
Irrespective of South Africa's poor 2010, Bismark du Plessis, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith, Pierre Spies and Bryan Habana are World XV contenders and they will spearhead the drive for redemption on this European tour.
That being said, Ireland have a few names to throw into that discussion also, led by Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip and incorporating the back row and back three. Last summer, there was a notable verve to Ireland's style of play, with plenty of off-loads and willingness to embrace the more fluid rugby encouraged under the new interpretations.
That would appear to be the goal again this evening, with O'Driscoll stressing the communal desire to fire, with coaches and players singing from the same hymn sheet.
"We have an element of flexibility to our game and we like to be able to vary it," he said. "It's all about adapting as a team and not being predictable and we have tried to put a few different things in our game. We have to happy with the way we are playing."
The visitors, with an experimental backline that includes the talented but flighty Zane Kirchner in midfield, seem likely revert to a traditional Springbok bully-boy approach, which will be aided significantly if the weather turns nasty, as is predicted.
It points to a torrid battle in the trenches and this is where pride becomes a factor again. South African fans are not known for their sensitivity and the Springboks have been getting an earful this year, with Habana saying this week how the abuse he received in Bloemfontein against Australia was the "low point in my career."
It has created a powerful imperative to silence the Bokke's boo-boys, while the home side, who have not tasted victory since their defeat of Wales six games ago, want to banish the phrase "losing streak" from their coverage.
The bookies back Ireland, the Boks are backing themselves and it all adds up to a tight, intriguing contest and one worthy of Irish rugby's Lansdowne Road homecoming.