South African forwards plotting a bruising tour for Ireland
With a new head coach, captain and nine uncapped players in their squad, the upcoming Test series against Ireland signals the dawning of a new era for South African rugby, so settling old scores is a not a pressing priority.
When reflecting on the 2014 Autumn internationals, it’s decidedly striking just how drastically the perception of the Ireland team has since changed.
Joe Schmidt had guided Ireland to a Six Nations title at the first time of asking so his stock was never higher and, even facing life without Brian O’Driscoll, the feel-good factor was infectious.
First up were the Springboks, who brought a typically formidable group to Dublin as well as a new batch of exciting young backs.
It mattered not, however, as a combination of superior tactics and the flawless kicking of Johnny Sexton -six from six- ensured a 29-15 win for the hosts, and Schmidt’s first southern hemisphere scalp.
Rhys Ruddock went over off the back of well-worked line out move, then Tommy Bowe dotted down after perfectly timing his run onto Conor Murray’s probing kick. The unexpected new centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne also fared well.
Then Springbok head coach Heyneke Meyer stepped down after last year’s World Cup, where they were eliminated in the semi final by the All Blacks.
Allister Coetzee is now at the helm, and the sole remnant from Meyer’s tenure is highly rated forwards coach, Johann Van Graan.
Van Graan, who has been heavily linked with taking over at Bath, claimed that he and the remaining players that suffered defeat that November night are not concerned with righting that wrong. Even if the teams have not crossed paths in the interim.
"Every Test match is a new beginning. We obviously learnt a lot about that Test match (in Dublin),” Van Graan told rugby365.
"We have so much respect for the Irish coaching staff and they will definitely bring something new.
"Allister [Coetzee] and the rest of the coaching staff always looked at this Test series as a (new) start and we will do some new things, but it is not going to be about revenge. There is a lot of respect for them and we can't wait for Saturday.”
In terms of where he believes the Boks can assert their dominance against an Irish side that, to put in mildly, is understrength, Van Graan identified the set piece and, more specifically, the second row.
South Africa have always produced outstanding locks and Eben Etzebeth and Lood De Jager certainly honour that tradition. Van Graan also referenced the dynamism in their back row, notably Toulon’s Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw of Bath.
"All the locks have been brilliant at contesting at franchise level. Also, a guy like Siya Kolisi has improved tremendously at franchise level in terms of jumping.
"We all know what Duane (Vermeulen) and Flo (Francois Louw) can do.
"It also helps that there is a bit of continuity from the previous era in terms of our systems. We are going to try and contest on our terms on Saturday and hopefully take the Irish out of their structure."
Ireland, for all their injuries, are hardly lacking in the engine room. Undoubtedly, any combination of Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Ultan Dillane and Donnacha Ryan, will be more than happy to meet the challenge of their counterparts, starting on Saturday in Cape Town.
Like the giddy abandon that typified Joe Schmidt’s early days in the hot seat, Van Graan said the South African camp is brimming with an emotive intent.
"You could feel the excitement and intensity on Sunday evening. We did a lot of training last week - now it's about winning a Test match. Test matches are always special, especially against Ireland - a team we have a lot of respect for."
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