Thursday 19 July 2018

November success hinges on perfect start

Front-loaded schedule means Springbok clash in season-opener will make or break Ireland's fortunes in autumn campaign

Ireland v South Africa, Aviva Stadium, 5.30pm, RTE2 / Sky Sports Action
Ireland v South Africa, Aviva Stadium, 5.30pm, RTE2 / Sky Sports Action
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

This evening, we find out where Joe Schmidt's Ireland team stand.

Ranked fourth in the world, they have enjoyed memorable victories over the past 18 months while building depth in key positions, but their lack of consistency has held them back.

The win over England rescued a disappointing Six Nations. That victory was the latest in a series of significant, but isolated, scalps. The next step is putting it all together.

This month, Ireland should win three from three.

South Africa, Fiji and Argentina are below them in the World Rugby rankings and, while the Islanders are on the up, the other two cannot claim to have made much progress this season.

The Springboks are never a team Ireland can take lightly, but they are a team that Ireland can beat.

After the New Zealand nut was cracked a year ago, there is no one left to fear. Respect, yes. But the time of Ireland being afraid of the southern hemisphere big hitters has long passed.

The bookmakers make Ireland six-point favourites to get the job done and, with a close to full-strength pack and a pair of world-class half-backs starting, it is difficult to argue with those odds.

There are new faces to consider as Bundee Aki steps out of the headlines and into centre stage, while Jacob Stockdale moves up in class from his summer debut against Japan. On the bench, Rob Herring, James Ryan and Darren Sweetnam are all relative newcomers who will also be in for a baptism of fire.

Debate

Aki has been the subject of much debate this week and may feel the coverage is unfair.

Whatever one feels about the residency laws, there is no doubting the Aucklander's calibre as a player however and his combination with Robbie Henshaw is an exciting one.

Ireland's creative edge could stem from his capacity to get on to the same wavelength as Johnny Sexton.

Their ability to thrive, however, will depend on the forwards' battle with a powerful Springbok pack.

You can't beat the South Africans without first winning the battle in the trenches and, while their scrum has struggled at times this year, they possess a potent and destructive lineout packed with big, athletic forwards.

The breakdown will be a war-zone, particularly if the Boks come close to matching the intensity they achieved in running New Zealand to a point in Newlands last month.

But, with a pack featuring seven Lions, the Irish team will be confident of coping.

Unlike other outings against South Africa, Schmidt has been able to field a team packed with strong ball-carriers.

The Irish backline is among the biggest they've ever fielded, with Andrew Conway the only player below 6ft, while any pack that contains Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Seán O'Brien and CJ Stander can bank on winning their fair share of collisions.

Andy Farrell's defence will be crucial, with Ireland needing to shut the visiting team's momentum down at source.

In Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth and Damian de Allende, the Springboks will look to win initial battles and set the Irish defensive line back. By aggressively getting in their faces before they can generate go-forward the home side can battle their way into the game.

Coetzee's side have tightened up in recent weeks, with the influence of assistants Franco Smith and Brendan Venter slowly seeping in.

They attack close to the ruck, backing their carriers to make hard yards and their capacity to win collisions to free those around them against a scrambling defence.

However, they often fail to protect their own ball at ruck-time and Ireland will target those opportunities to turn the ball over or at least slow it down.

As always, Schmidt's team will bank on being the more disciplined side, while their kick-chase game will be key.

While South Africa's pack looks strong and their centre pairing impressive, there are question-marks over their half-backs and back-three combination.

Expect Conor Murray to test Andries Coetzee, Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan with high hanging box-kicks, with Conway, Stockdale and Rob Kearney propelling themselves into the air to put the trio under pressure.

Lions pair Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjes are the preferred 9-10 pairing, but they lack the experience and class that Murray and Sexton bring to the table.

Ireland's Lions' No 10 is in the form of his life and his ability to mix his game is unparalleled in this part of the world.

If the pack can gain parity at least, then Sexton can control matters and that could be the key.

Victory is important, but it is also important that Ireland continue to develop their game and the introduction of Aki certainly livens up their potential in midfield.

A game-breaker with a genuine offload threat, the 27-year-old will be asked to back himself and continue doing what he does best for Connacht with ball in hand. His centre partner Henshaw may be the prime beneficiary.

Although he must learn the Ireland ropes, Schmidt claims Aki will not need to change his game overtly in the international arena.

"I don't think it's ever a need to necessarily adapt. We have a rhythm in the way we play, every team has systems, they're not necessarily overly diverse," he said. "With Bundee, he's slotted in really well but I don't think it's any different for Darren Sweetnam or anyone else.

"Darren's been in one or two other camps, Bundee came in for just the single day we had earlier in the season.

"So, people have dipped their toe in and now they've got to plunge in and it's a pretty deep pool first up.

"One of the things that is good about Bundee and a few of the other players that have come in is they are quite instinctive players.

Jacob Stockdale, his instinct is to carry and to be very strong and try to take the outside break and if that's what he sees that's what we want to back himself doing."

With Simon Zebo exiled, Keith Earls injured and Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe dropped, there is a changing of the guard on the wings where Stockdale's inclusion is an exciting look to the future.

Just 21, the Ulster starlet has been excellent on provincial duty this season but his coaches have stressed that he is not yet the finished article.

All of those rough edges will be on display today, but Schmidt's decision to select him for the biggest game of the window is a vote of confidence and if he can get the ball in space he offers real attacking potential.

One fear is that Ireland lack impact on their bench after the curious omission of Seán Cronin.

Herring is a solid, workmanlike operator but does not bring the Leinster star's athleticism to the table, while James Ryan is a player with massive potential who is making another big step up in class.

He looks well able for it, but this is the biggest game of his career by far.

Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan and Rhys Ruddock are all there to maintain the pace rather than change it, but Kieran Marmion and Joey Carbery offer something different if introduced while the other debutant - Sweetnam - offers plenty in attack.

Carbery's role will be fascinating this autumn, especially given his ropey goal-kicking and lack of game-time at out-half.

It would be no surprise to see him introduced at full-back given Rob Kearney's lack of game-time - but the absence of Paddy Jackson could be felt if Sexton goes down early.

Defeat for Ireland would be a setback, but not a disaster.

For Allister Coetzee, however, a loss would bring more pressure on to his shoulders at the end of a difficult season.

With Rassie Erasmus returning home, there is a sense that the coach's career is on the line this month and it could be up to the players to save his bacon.

If they can perform the way they did in Newlands, we'll be in for a real Test match but that looked like an emotional performance fuelled by the hurt of the previous 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks.

That level is hard to attain for an end-of-season one-off on a cold evening in Dublin.

No doubt it will be bruising, but Ireland have the pack and the half-backs to get their promising season off to a winning start.

Anything less would be underwhelming.

Verdict: Ireland 23 South Africa 18

Irish Independent

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