Kiss and Smal wary of Springbok underdogs label
IT has long been established that Ireland teams are more comfortable carrying the underdogs tag. There seems to be something in the Irish psyche which embraces the notion of putting favourites in their place and, conversely, reacts awkwardly when that tag is applied to them.
Last March's defeat to Scotland is a prime example. Man-for-man, Ireland had the superior players and went into the Croke Park clash as everyone's fancy. That appeared to sit uneasily on Declan Kidney's side, as did the pressure emanating from the widespread expectation of another Triple Crown -- the Scots drew motivational strength from the build-up and pooped the party.
Tomorrow, beating South Africa is the challenge but rather than being talked up as world champions and Tri Nations titans, the lead-in has centred on the Springboks' injury problems, their poor 2010, coaching problems and the fact that they have been beaten on their last three visits to Ireland.
Thus, the message at yesterday's Ireland briefing was firmly directed towards the Springboks' strengths and, when you consider some of the heavyweights that will be lining out -- particularly in the pack -- they deserve to be acknowledged. Victor Matfield, Bismark du Plessis, Bakkies Botha, Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, 'Beast' Mtawarira and Bryan Habana were all part of the Springboks side that subdued the best the four home unions could muster on the 2009 Lions tour.
This year, after a solitary win from six Tri Nations outings, South Africa look to have fallen off the attacking pace when compared to their southern hemisphere rivals, a conclusion reinforced last weekend in Hong Kong when Australia pipped New Zealand after a contest of breathtaking skill.
However, Ireland defence coach Les Kiss is not about to underestimate the Springboks' attacking abilities and says their 2010 performance compares favourably with Australia's.
"They are not that far off," said Kiss. "If we take them lightly we'll come a cropper. They scored seven tries against the Aussies in their last two games (see panel). They can score points.
"With the new interpretations, we're all probably trying to base our game around how New Zealand are setting the standard -- and now Australia have done a couple of good things.
"But if they get the field position and the ball position right and those critical things that have come to the fore in recent months, any team can do well in any given game.
"So South Africa will play to their strengths and if they don't make a lot of handling errors and they control (field) position they're going to be a tough proposition."
For last November's 15-10 victory, Ireland drew heavily on the influence of their South African forwards coach Gert Smal, who was in charge of the Springbok pack for their World Cup run three years ago, with Matfield declaring that Smal's inside knowledge of their Afrikaans calls led to the "worst line-out contest ever".
However, while that knowledge makes Smal perfectly positioned to plot the visitors' downfall once again, it also gives him a healthy respect for their quality and determination to end their run of Dublin defeats.
"They did not have a good Tri Nations and they will want to start this Grand Slam (tour) campaign with a big bang," said Smal. "Even with their injuries, you don't get a weak Boks side.
"They are one of the most difficult teams to contest and have line-outs against, but that's the challenge. Obviously, I know a fair amount about South African line-outs, and it's a challenge for the team and for our subs as well to see how many we can get, and how many we can spoil."
Last year, Smal predicted Tony Buckley would be "world-class" at a time when the giant Shannon man was still behind John Hayes in the tight-head prop pecking order. Buckley has made purposeful strides in the right direction since then, much to Smal's satisfaction.
"One of my biggest worries at the beginning, when I was appointed, was the front-row positions, where there was only John (Hayes).
"We worked very hard over the past two years to develop the squad, particularly the front row and he (Buckley) is one of the players who is putting up his hand, particularly on the summer tour; in the game against the All Blacks he played very well.
"He's very calm and collected. He's got a good personality and he's got a little bit of a trip-switch as well: when he needs it he will bring it out."