Leinster in Pretoria yesterday. Steve Haag Sports/Christiaan Kotze/INPHO
heating up

A taste of what's to come - Ireland's spicy series with Springboks looms

Andy Farrell will be hoping all of his key men come through today unscathed.

NO ONE CAN accuse the South Africans of being disinterested in this summer’s two-Test series against Ireland.

Tickets for the games in Pretoria and Durban sold out in hours back in March. That appetite among supporters is matched by the Springboks themselves. It seems as though they have been unable to stop talking about Ireland and with a notable amount of spice.

Damian de Allende recently outlined how the Boks had felt disrespected by the Irish media as far back as 2017 and we know from the recent Chasing the Sun series that Rassie Erasmus stoked that fire again during the World Cup last year, playing clips from Off the Ball to psyche his players up.

Eben Etzebeth claimed that 12 of Ireland’s matchday 23 in Paris for their World Cup pool game said, ‘See you guys in the final’ as they shook hands after Ireland’s win. Rather than viewing it as good manners, the Boks lock felt these 12 Irish players might be overlooking the threat of New Zealand in the quarter-final.

Cheslin Kolbe, meanwhile, has suggested that there has been “a lot of talk about Ireland deserving to win the World Cup” but it’s unclear where he has heard or read all of this chat. “We’ll see in July,” said the outstanding Boks wing.

This might seem like infantile stuff to people in Ireland but it’s not to the Springboks. We know they have a Michael Jordan-esque ability to find ways to motivate themselves. Erasmus is an expert at helping his teams to play with a chip on their shoulder.

Indeed, out-half Handré Pollard and centre de Allende revealed recently that Erasmus had fired his players up for their World Cup quarter-final against France by explaining to them how South Africa had lost out on hosting rights for the 2023 tournament.

World Rugby selected South Africa as the official preferred hosts but France ended up getting the honour after two rounds of voting.

rg-snyman-is-tackled-by-caelen-doris RG Snyman plays for Munster today. Dave Winter / INPHO Dave Winter / INPHO / INPHO

“Once we understood what actually happened and Rassie explained what actually happened, it gave us a bit of an edge for the quarter-final,” said de Allende on the Big Jim Show.

You could have been forgiven for thinking that political maneuvering at union level wouldn’t be relevant to players’ motivation levels but Erasmus never misses a beat. He knows that his South African players are at their best when he pulls the emotional levers and he’s good at finding them.

Playing Ireland is the perfect way for the Boks to get back up to speed in their first campaign since their World Cup final victory last October. Beating this Irish team is the one score Erasmus’ men still need to settle.

Even though very few people actually think it, he will be framing this as a chance to disprove the notion that Ireland are the best team in the world. The Boks were the last men standing at last year’s World Cup but even though they won the war, losing that pool-stage battle to Ireland hurt. It doesn’t sit well with the South Africans that Ireland have won three in a row against them.

Ireland, meanwhile, get a shot at taking down the world champions and winning a Test series in South Africa for the first time. So this is going to have edge.

Andy Farrell will be watching today’s URC semi-finals with the hope that lots of his key men shine for Munster and Leinster but equally keeping his fingers crossed that they all come through unscathed ahead of Ireland’s touring squad being announced next week.

It’s pleasing for the Ireland boss to see Garry Ringrose in for his long-awaited return for Leinster. The outside centre’s cutting edge on both sides of the ball is crucial for Farrell’s side.

Ireland already know they will be without first-choice fullback Hugo Keenan, so Farrell will have a close eye on Jimmy O’Brien’s performance at number 15 for Leinster today.

With Connacht’s Mack Hansen – a candidate for the fullback slot – having been sidelined since January with a shoulder injury, O’Brien looks like the favourite to be at 15 against the Springboks.

rassie-erasmus Springboks boss Rassie Erasmus. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Otherwise, it seems likely that Ireland’s team will have a familiar look as they take on the back-to-back world champions. Farrell shouldn’t be worrying too much about the future in July – his job is to pick the strongest 23 he can and do his utmost to beat the Boks. 

It remains to be seen if Peter O’Mahony continues as skipper for Ireland, having been appointed for the Six Nations campaign earlier this year. The Cork man is keen to keep playing for Ireland and Farrell has always held O’Mahony in huge regard. When you’re going to battle with the Boks, you need your warhorses.

It will be interesting to find out if Ireland will go with the 6/2 bench split they used three times in the Six Nations. During the World Cup, Ireland dismissed the notion of going 6/2 against the Boks, saying they’d keep doing things their own way but the 6/2 has worked well for them since. Ciarán Frawley’s versatility makes it possible.

For some of those who missed out on the Six Nations squad earlier this year, tomorrow is the final audition. Farrell surely has his group for South Africa picked already but the likes of Shane Daly will hope one last big performance might sway any final decisions. 

It’s helpful that lots of Ireland’s key men will play at altitude with Leinster today, getting a taste of what’s ahead in three weeks’ time against the Boks, who have been in Pretoria themselves this week. Erasmus has brought his squad – minus the Bulls players and a few others like Munster’s RG Snyman – into camp ahead of their opening Test of the year against Wales in London next weekend.

That game will allow him to look at a few different options but the reality is that the Ireland Tests are the big ones this year for the Boks, even more so than the Rugby Championship that follows.

jerry-flannery Jerry Flannery is now the Boks' defence coach. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Erasmus will be without the versatile Damian Willemse, a key man in their use of 6/2 and 7/1 benches, while wings Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie will miss the first Test and Cheslin Kolbe is also a doubt. 

Steven Kitshoff, Jean Kleyn, and Lood de Jager are also on the injury list and will be absent for the series, so the Boks are down a few of their most familiar faces. Still, we know that South African rugby has great depth.

There have been notable changes to the Springboks coaching team too, with former Ireland hooker Jerry Flannery having succeeded Jacques Nienaber as defence coach and the innovative Tony Brown taking over as attack coach from Felix Jones.

While the URC semi-finals take centre stage today, with a decider to come next weekend, it’s hard not to get more and more excited about the first Test in Pretoria in just 21 days’ time.

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