Performance key for Ireland -- even if Boks pack too big a punch
Apprehension and anticipation collide at Lansdowne Road this evening. Ireland and South Africa confront each other with both sides harbouring oceans of self-doubt caused by a variety of related factors, chiefly concerning a raft of enforced withdrawals and uncertainty in stylistic approach.
What is certain is that it doesn't threaten to be an edifying spectacle.
The Springboks have scarcely concealed their intent all week -- they will kick, and then kick some more and, as a last resort perhaps, kick again in an attempt to make their redoubtable physicality dominate proceedings.
Ireland would like to think that they can set up to at least counter the boot-infested and physically intense approach inculcated by their visitors and respond in kind.
Whether they can assume an ascendancy sufficient enough to engender a novel approach of their own is less convincing, particularly with so many high-profile absentees.
It is impossible to frame this encounter without assessing the impact caused by the loss of the country's greatest player and its two chief destructive impacts in the ball-carrying and tackling departments.
Add to that a nonpareil line-out performer and one of the world's best fielding, kicking and counter-attacking last lines of defence and it is immediately obvious that South Africa may hold the upper hand.
Albeit they, too, have been shorn of legends aplenty.
Merely listing the key absentees -- Bismarck du Plessis, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussow, Juan Smith, Pierre Spies, Fourie du Preez, Francois Steyn and Jacques Fourie, not to mention the retired lock duo of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield -- should offer some hope to home supporters.
Nevertheless, the fact that the bookies have hardened their favouritism for the Boks by two points over the last 48 hours indicates that they feel, like many, that Ireland are the least capable of suffering such a weighty loss of experience.
Even at their strongest, Ireland's desperate form would barely arouse much optimism of a positive result.
There are simply too many imponderables to side with Ireland to any great degree, beginning with the untested back-three combination that, according to Les Kiss yesterday, must strive to strike the right balance between when to kick the pill back to the Boks and when to run it back.
For sure, Ireland possess a decent swathe of ball-winners to at least offer genuine hope of a contested tussle on the floor.
But a lack of ball-carrying heft makes one fearful for the home side should South Africa assume an early, physical dominance which may allow them to grab an irreversible hold on the game's momentum.
There are weaknesses to exploit in this South African side; their goal-kicking is lamentable, well below 50pc in the recent Rugby Championship and, despite spending more time than any other nation in the red zone, their conversion rate is similarly poor.
Ireland could also manage at least parity in the set-piece but in the general, physical contest of the ball, the fundamental theatre of international Test rugby, Kidney's men seem to have less to offer than the formidable Springboks.
If Ireland can contest physically, their half-back combination could be key, especially as there seems to be an inordinate amount of pressure being placed on Ruan Pienaar's shoulders to assume the responsibility inside the relatively green Pat Lambie.
If Conor Murray can shift it quickly enough from the morass on the floor, Ireland's backs have the tools to threaten out wide, from Jonny Sexton's poise and distribution, through Keith Earls' dashing skill and the running threats of an exciting, in-form back three.
Playing the game away from Springbok beef will be the ultimate aim of Ireland's game plan.
The decision-making of Ireland's halves and their key forwards, like captain Jamie Heaslip, must be of a consistently high level. Isolated runners into contact or ball-carriers lacking support will be gobbled up by rugged opponents.
Maintaining this fine balance will be key to Ireland's prospects of pulling off what would be a huge victory. That few expect Ireland to win allows them a modicum of room to be a tad more expansive than they might normally be, but relying on so many second-choice picks must ultimately have an enervating effect.
South Africa to win but, should Ireland demonstrate sufficient verve and intent to indicate that they are willing to advance from a dog-eared script that has dragged down them down in recent months, then the exercise may not entirely be a fruitless one.
Verdict South Africa
Ireland -- S Zebo; T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy, A Trimble; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; D Ryan, M McCarthy; P O'Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip (Capt). Reps: D Kilcoyne, M Bent, S Cronin, D O'Callaghan, I Henderson, E Reddan, R O'Gara, F McFadden.
South Africa -- Z Kirchner; JP Pietersen, J Taute, J de Villiers (capt), F Hougaard; P Lambie, R Pienaar; T Mtawarira, A Strauss, J du Plessis; E Etzebeth, J Kruger; F Louw, W Alberts, D Vermeulen Reps: S Brits, CJ van der Linde, P Cilliers, F van der Merwe, M Coetzee, M Steyn, J de Jongh, L Mvovo.
Ref -- W Barnes (England).