Andy Farrell and Ireland braced for the ultimate challenge against Springboks

The number one-ranked side facing the reigning world champions South Africa is a special occasion for Irish rugby

Rugby, like any sport, rarely allows a team to rest on its laurels, or even its most recent achievements, however enormous.

So it is that the page has quickly been turned on the historic comeback win over the All Blacks. Next up, for the first time ever at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, Ireland are the number one-ranked side and are facing the reigning world champions. That’s not a difficult sell.

Hence, while Andy Farrell described taking on the All Blacks as the ultimate challenge last July, so it is that facing the Springboks is now the ultimate challenge because, well, it’s the next one. But there’s more to it than that because South Africa look primed to give this high-flying Irish team a different examination than was even the case against the Al Blacks.

“I’m fluttering,” quipped the smiling Irish head coach, before stating: “No honestly it doesn’t get any bigger. I have said this to the players. This is called living properly. There is no better time to be an Irish rugby player.


“Meeting the New Zealand XV on Friday night and performing for the group and then backing up the next day with the other lads, it doesn’t really get any better,” Farrell added of a truly unique week that has the two giants of the global game, who have won six of the previous nine World Cups between them, in Dublin.

“When the Springboks are in town, everyone gets super excited. And we know what is coming. Everyone else knows what is coming which is why everyone else like yourself is super excited. Because for you guys and for the public et cetera this is, wow, this is as big as it gets and we 100 per cent get that.”

Looking ahead to the other two Nations Series games against Fiji and Australia, Farrell added: “But I promise you, next week for whoever takes the field, that will be their biggest game as well. The week after that will be the biggest game again because they are under the spotlight the whole time.

“They know they are going to be judged so therefore the feelings are pretty similar. But having said that there is no doubt there is going to be an extra edge on Saturday night.”

Following on from last season’s Six Nations, with treks to Paris and London, and the five-match tour to New Zealand, this is the next stage in what is a demanding schedule but what Farrell sees as an ideal build-up to the World Cup.

“The 18 months from the tour to what we know is ahead, is perfect for us. The tour was special in its own right, just because of the experience. Even if we had lost 5-0 on that tour, it still would have been great for us because of the experience for that group and what they faced, different cultures, different styles of players.

“From my mind, looking forward, playing South Africa, who we’ve not played for five years, and Fiji, a completely different style of rugby, and Australia, who we’ve not played in such a long time, it actually couldn’t get any better as far as experiences are concerned for us.

“Because what we’re going to experience in a year’s time, that’s what we’re going to meet, different styles week-in, week-out. You’ve got to be able to adapt, adjust and understand it and be at your best on the back of it. That’s why this autumn is fantastic for us.”

Yet for all their traditional physicality, the Rassie Erasmus-Jacques Nienaber think tank have opted for a remodelled back three with Cheslin Kolbe making his first Test start at fullback, while again investing in the rich attacking promise of a new young halfback pairing in Jaden Hendrikse and Damian Willemse.

“It’s a good team. It’s all-singing, all-dancing as far as they’re concerned,” said Farrell. “It’s the type of side they would have wanted to come to the Aviva to kick off their Autumn Series. These guys have obviously been playing right through since we went to New Zealand and the cohesion they have is obviously going to be strong but that’s no excuse for us.

“We know the cards we’re dealt time and time again in the northern hemisphere and one of the things we try to pride ourselves on is getting up to speed as soon as we possibly can. Hopefully we can be at our best on Saturday because we know that they will be.”

By taking a “calculated” gamble on Hugo Keenan and Jamison Gibson-Park, neither of whom have played yet this season, Farrell has ultimately been able to keep all bar three of the starting XV in the third Test against the All Blacks, with Robert Baloucoune and Garry Ringrose coming into the side, Conor Murray starting ahead of Gibson-Park on the occasion of his 100th cap, and Stuart McCloskey promoted to the bench.

For the 25-year-old Baloucoune, it will be his third cap and biggest opportunity yet to showcase his talent on the international stage.

“He’s coming out of himself character-wise,” said Farrell. “He’s now understanding there is more to the game than just his point of difference and how he adds to the team is pretty important as well. He’s coming out of himself confidence-wise so therefore he believes in himself more within the group and I think you’ll see that flourish on Saturday.”

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Robert Baloucoune (Ulster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), Mack Hansen (Connacht); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Conor Murray (Munster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); James Ryan (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Kieran Treadwell (Ulster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times