Up-tempo Ireland can keep physical South Africa in check in mouthwatering autumn opener

Bruising clash of styles in prospect at the Aviva Stadium as world champions come to town

Ireland v South Africa, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 5.30pm – Live on Virgin Media Sport and Amazon Prime

This Ireland team have just gone where only five teams in history have gone before. They’ve risen to number one in the world, probably playing the best brand of rugby by any Irish team ever. They’ve won 14 of their last 16 Tests and their last nine at home, something only the class of 2016 and 2018 have ever bettered. Oh, and the world champions are in town. This shouldn’t need any promptings from the PA system. C’mon Aviva, lively up yourselves.

Perhaps the Ireland coaches and players should accentuate more how much the support means to them, but when Paul O’Connell was asked on Friday, he gave a revealing insight into the importance of the fans and public.

“Yeah, massive, a massive role. It’s the most important part for the players, how the crowd and the country perceives them. Probably the biggest thing they talk about, is trying to make people proud, trying to inspire the nation.


“Whether they’re in the crowd at the game, whether they’re watching on TV, whether they’re second/third generation – we spoke about that at the start of last week. The Kevin Maggs of this world, they’re almost more Irish than us.

“For me being involved in the last 20 months it’s been one of the most enjoyable aspects, how important that is to the players, and how much they speak about it. They talk about that more than they thought about winning.

“So, I think it 100 per cent makes a difference. I looked at the New Zealand game from last autumn during the week and I remember we had a bit of line speed from Caelan Doris and Tadhg Furlong on the far side early in the game and we forced a mistake from New Zealand and the crowd just erupted. And it was just a knock on!

“That makes a difference to the players, 100 per cent. I’m happy to see some of the things that are being put in place now to make sure the crowd are here, I suppose, not to be entertained but to play a role in the game.”

New challenges keep coming and keep being embraced. Bring them on is Andy Farrell’s motto. He even seems to have a masochistic pleasure in coping with late disruptions – the latest of which saw Robbie Henshaw withdrawn with a hamstring strain on Friday – on the premise that an unrelenting World Cup campaign of four, five, six or ideally seven games will throw up plenty.

Even so, on top of losing three other contributors to the historic series win in New Zealand in James Lowe, Bundee Aki and Keith Earls, it means that in addition to Robert Baloucoune starting the biggest game of his career, the same is probably now true for Stuart McCloskey. It’s certainly his biggest Test, in every sense, since his debut against England in 2016.

What’s more, given the calculated gamble on Hugo Keenan’s match fitness, the uncapped Jimmy O’Brien is now in line for his Test debut off the bench after preparing all week for the A game. But McCloskey would have run at 12 in training.

So despite the pack remaining unchanged again, these are significant leaps of faith among the backs. But whatever happens, it can only be beneficial to the team’s growth.

It’s also a chance to celebrate Conor Murray’s achievement in becoming only Ireland’s eighth centurion. “Yeah, it’s brilliant. It’s good to have another Munster man,” joked O’Connell wryly in reference to Murray being the fourth from Munster, as against three from Leinster and one Ulster. “We’re ahead in something anyway!”

Murray’s return to the starting line-up feels appropriate, and not just as a gesture, but also due to Jamison Gibson-Park’s lack of any rugby minutes since July. The latter can still inject tempo in the last 20 or 30.

Nor does this signal a feast of box kicks, not from this Ireland team anyway. They’re not one-dimensional, although it would be silly not to employ Murray’s skill set, especially with Cheslin Kolbe starting for the first time at fullback, and he hasn’t looked the same player yet with Toulon since his injury.

Indeed, despite what appears to be a more adventurous Springboks selection than usual, and especially so at halfback and in a blistering back three seemingly designed to counterattack, Stradbrook spies suggest the Boks are preparing another of their aerial bombardments.

The theory goes that a la Saracens, La Rochelle, England and France, true to type, these physically imposing Springboks, look particularly well equipped to trouble an Irish side. They have big scrums and mauls, with a powerful frontrow especially to spring from the bench, as well as an array of big carriers.

But Farrell maintains that good decision-making earns Ireland the right to be physical with bigger teams, and certainly that’s preferable to overtly adjusting their own game. Ireland have good decision-makers throughout their team and a more varied game, potentially one that can cause the Springboks as many problems as they will pose with their more restrictive game.

Part of the intrigue is that there’s been no meeting in five years as a yardstick. But the auguries from last November are good. The Aviva was a fever for the opener against the All Blacks, when the visitors were also way more match hardened while Ireland looked undercooked. But they served up a storm.

On what will be a breezy day with some showers, it’s a big game for Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli. Ireland want a quick tempo game with plenty of ball-in-play. South Africa will want the opposite. It should be quite an autumnal opener, bruising and absorbing in equal measure.

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).

SOUTH AFRICA: Cheslin Kolbe (Toulon); Kurt-Lee Arendse (Vodacom Bulls), Jesse Kriel (Canon Eagles), Damian de Allende (Wild Knights), Makazole Mapimpi (Cell C Sharks); Damian Willemse (DHL Stormers), Jaden Hendrikse (Cell C Sharks); Steven Kitshoff (DHL Stormers), Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears), Frans Malherbe (DHL Stormers); Eben Etzebeth (Cell C Sharks), Lood de Jager (Wild Knights); Siya Kolisi (Cell C Sharks, captain), Pieter-Steph du Toit (Toyota Verblitz), Jasper Wiese (Leicester Tigers).

Replacements: Bongi Mbonambi (Cell C Sharks), Ox Nche (Cell C Sharks), Vincent Koch (unattached), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat), Deon Fourie (DHL Stormers), Kwagga Smith (Shizuoka Blue Revs), Faf de Klerk (Canon Eagles), Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz).

Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)

Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Andrea Piardi (Italy)

TMO: Stuart Terheege (England)

Forecast: Ireland to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times