Wounded Boks have Ireland in cross hairs
AT lunchtime in Limerick today, Ireland coach Declan Kidney will outline his plans for November and the message will be: "We are not looking any further than South Africa."
The world champion Springboks provide the first of four hurdles on a fairly unforgiving autumn obstacle course and while accepting the hackneyed nature of the 'one game at time' mission statement, Ireland's run of five successive losses makes narrow focus towards November 6 eminently sensible.
Victory over South Africa at Lansdowne Road, to back up last year's 15-10 success, would be the perfect tonic after a difficult 10 months and provide the momentum to have a genuine cut off the All Blacks a fortnight later.
Although injuries are still an issue for Kidney -- no Paul O'Connell or Tomas O'Leary -- the situation is far healthier than it was on the summer tour and Ireland can go into battle with the confidence that comes from having their main men on board.
Further encouragement stems from the rocky South African build-up to this clash. Just as the northern hemisphere nations tend to be wracked by withdrawals for their end-of-season summer tours, the Tri Nations must battle the fatigue factor and general wear and tear for their November expeditions.
There have been calls in South Africa for their front-line players to be excused this tour -- starting with 33-year-old captain Victor Matfield (who has been going non-stop since the Super 14 got under way at the top of the year) and including the likes of Schalk Burger, Morne Steyn and Bryan Habana.
As well as regular captain John Smit, the list of 'unavailables' includes world-class players in scrum-half Fourie de Preez, centre Jacques Fourie and flanker Heinrik Brussow alongside valued squad ballast like Andries Bekker, Wynand Olivier, JP Pietersen and Gurthro Steenkamp.
On the management side, controversy continues to dog head coach Peter de Villiers whose (already meagre) support base appears to be dwindling by the day. South Africa's exacting rugby public and media could cope with De Villiers' shoddy outbursts and inconsistent selections while the team was successful but the slide from Tri Nations champions to chumps has ratcheted up the pressure and the vitriol.
It has created an aura of instability around the management team with the latest stories revolving around alleged bad blood between De Villiers and his coaching aides Gary Gold and Dick Muir. The head coach strenuously denied a rift but did admit to approaching other coaches about filling the assistant roles during the stormy Tri Nations fallout.
Those sounded out included ex-All Blacks coach John Mitchell as well as Heyneke Meyer, Allister Coetzee, Frans Ludeke and Rassie Erasmus. The exact nature of those conversations is unknown but it appears that De Villiers was politely told to sling his hook and the embattled head coach's subsequent spin came across as more than a little watery.
"I did chat to other people but the intention was not to replace Gary and Dick," he maintained. "I was instructed to see who would be available to help us, just as Os (du Randt, scrum coach) has come in. It was more the long term, looking ahead to the World Cup."
De Villiers claims that after a couple of sit-downs with Gold and Muir that all is rosy again, a contention that has been greeted with general disdain.
It means that, far from an end-of-season afterthought, this November expedition has assumed huge significance for De Villiers and his validity as the man to lead the Springboks' to their World Cup title defence. His bosses have told him as much following an in-depth, post-Tri Nations review.
The SA Rugby chiefs gave De Villiers their backing but are understood to have stressed that November success is a condition to continuing in his job and that the Springbok 'brand' cannot suffer any more damage (which translates as "think before you speak").
That type of pressure tends to create a strained atmosphere in the camp, which has to be good news for Ireland. However, the flip side is that, similar to their opponents, the Springboks are now focusing on nothing more than November 6, looking for a springboard into the Tests against Wales, Scotland and England.
"We have done a lot of planning with Ireland in mind," said De Villiers. "We have made it clear where we want to be after that game."
It all adds to the anticipation as Ireland seek back-to-back victories over South Africa. Kidney will be aware of the turbulence in the South African camp but won't read too much into it. Both he and his players (particularly those that toured with the Lions last year) know that a wounded Springbok is a dangerous animal.