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Gerry Thornley: Fractious rivalry in store when Ireland take on Springboks

As ever with South Africa, this tour is about winning and, ideally, wining four games

Next Saturday’s eagerly anticipated renewal of the rivalry between Ireland and the Springboks is all the more remarkable for it being all of five years ago since they last met, and for both what happened on the day and its seismic aftereffects. All has changed, changed utterly.

Everything clicked for a well-oiled, settled Irish team, in peak condition early in their season, particularly in an end-game when three tries in the final 11 minutes completed a 38-3 win. It was the biggest winning margin and most points scored by Ireland in the 26 games played between the two countries since they first met in 1906.

It was also something of a freak, never to be repeated, with Schmidt admitting that the final scoreline flattered his team a little. The Springboks were at the end of their season and arguably at their lowest ebb under Allister Coetzee, or indeed ever. Famously, of course, watching in the stands at the Aviva stadium, after the full-time whistle Rassie Erasmus turned to Jacques Nienaber and resolved there and then that they would return home at the end of the season to revive the Boks.

It’s a measure of the transformative effect the pair had that within 20 months of Erasmus becoming the Boks’ head coach and Nienaber their defensive guru in March 2018, they beat England in the 2019 World Cup final in Tokyo.


Jacques Nienaber is now the head coach, with Rassie Erasmus a very hands-on director of rugby who has just completed a six-month ban

Just as tellingly, far from casting aside the players from that 38-3 beating in Dublin five years ago this month, a dozen of them would take part in the World Cup final just under two years later in Tokyo.

Tendai Mtawarira started both games, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi were the two hookers in both games, Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth the starting locks, and Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi the starting locks, with Ulster loose-head Steven Kitshoff, Francois Louw and Franco Mostert on the bench. Damian de Allende also started both games, while Handre Pollard was a replacement in Dublin and started in Tokyo.

Furthermore, all but the retired Mtawarira and Louw of that dozen, along with the injured Pollard, are in their 33-man squad and could well feature next Saturday.

Nienaber is now the head coach, with Erasmus a very hands-on director of rugby who has just completed a six-month ban after a misconduct committee for “attacking, disparaging and/or denigrating the game and match officials and not accepting the authority of match officials”.

So the Rassie sideshow will be back in town, both in front of the cameras and on the touchlines, after his utterly self-serving and successful dissection of the officials in the first Test against the Lions which induced paralysis by analysis of the officials in the second Test. All of which was borne, no doubt, out of a sense of entitlement as the World Champions and the Springboks.

Erasmus is also back in Ireland for the first time since his 18 months at the helm in Munster, since which, of course, we learned that he believes the Irish are “f**king soft” compared to the Welsh. This was revealed in the Chasing The Sun documentary, a comment that one presumes he could have had edited out if he’d been so inclined.

But there’s no doubt Erasmus has been a brilliant leader of the Springboks, and they arrive seeking to become the first back-to-back winners of the William Webb Ellis trophy. And with largely the same side too, given 11 of the starting XV from the World Cup final and 15 of the match-day 23 are still in the squad.

There will be some significant, injury-enforced adjustments though, most notably at outside centre and outhalf in the absence of the Am and Pollard. The brilliant and hugely influential Am was the creator in chief among the Boks’ backline, whereas Jesse Kriel (another survivor from the 2017 meeting) is more physical and a stronger defensive presence.

Against that, while Damian Willemse is a strong physical presence at outhalf, he’s also a very creative outhalf who is quick and has a clever passing game, if not the developed kicking game of Pollard.

Willemse was moved from fullback to outhalf at half-time in the first Test against Wales last summer, with Ollie le Roux coming on at fullback and the out-of-sorts and now out-of-favour Elton Jantjies replaced with Wales leading 18-3. The Boks were a transformed attacking threat, and Willemse completed their 32-29 comeback win with a late penalty.

Having returned to the most basic of Boks’ rugby in that ugly, fanless series against the Lions there were clear signs of a more developed game during the Rugby Championship, when they finished second by a point to New Zealand.

After Pollard was injured, Willemse started both of their 24-8 and 36-20 wins away to Australia and Argentina, and it seems likely he will be the starting outhalf when the Boks’ side is named today.

This tour, in European conditions akin to next year, is all about the World Cup, and as well as matches against Italy, France and England, the Boks have A games against Munster and Bristol.

Mbonambi and Marx remain the only two specialist hookers in the squad, as Joseph Dweba’s throwing issues have seen him named in the A squad

The core of the most settled side in Test rugby remains intact, and the coaches probably know 25 or more of their World Cup squad, but this tour is also about pencilling in some more names.

Mbonambi and Marx remain the only two specialist hookers in the squad, as Joseph Dweba’s throwing issues have seen him named in the A squad. Interestingly, the Stormers flanker Deon Fourie has been named as a utility back, and as he can also play at hooker it could be that Erasmus and Nienaber are thinking of a Schalk Brits role for him in their World Cup squad.

Similarly, the young Stormers’ 10/12 Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu could be developed on this tour, not least as another option like this could allow Erasmus and Nienaber to retain their macho 6-2 split on the bench, which frankly should be prohibited by World Rugby on the premise of player welfare given the increased risk of head injuries in the last 20 or 30 minutes of games.

But most of all, as ever with the Boks, this tour is about winning and, ideally, wining four games.

Time dulls the pain, and it sure helps when you win a World Cup. Yet while a surprisingly high number of those vanquished Boks six years ago have since proven that the pain was worth it. They’ll still feel they have a score to settle.