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Rassie's Springboks make impressive start to underline Ireland's challenge

Joe Schmidt’s men could meet the Boks at the quarter-final stage of the World Cup.

A LITTLE LIKE alcohol and mobile phones, Ireland and World Cup quarter-finals have tended not to go very well together.

Australia knocked Ireland out at the quarter-final stage in the first World Cup in 1987, then did so again at Lansdowne Road in 1991 before going on to win that tournament.

In 1995, it was France’s turn to cause Irish pain in the quarter-finals, while Argentina denied Ireland an opportunity to even reach that stage in 1999, knocking Warren Gatland’s team out in the play-offs to reach the final eight.

Joe Schmidt Joe Schmidt hopes to guide Ireland beyond the quarter-finals for the first time. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

France handed Ireland a quarter-final exit in 2003, before combining with Argentina to ensure Eddie O’Sullivan’s men didn’t manage to get out of their pool four years later.

In 2011, Gatland’s Wales consigned Ireland to yet another quarter-final failing and it was Argentina who caused further suffering four years ago, dumping Joe Schmidt’s team out of the competition at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Ireland’s abysmal record at World Cups is impossible to ignore and supporters will be hoping that this year’s tournament in Japan finally sees their team break the glass ceiling and advance into the semi-finals.

There are, of course, worries around Ireland after their disappointing performances in the 2019 Six Nations – when they lost to England and Wales – but Schmidt and his squad will be backing themselves to be better prepared than any Irish side has ever been for a World Cup.

Losing first-choice openside Dan Leavy, as well as a possible replacement in Sean O’Brien, to injury was a big blow for Ireland too – though they have several other quality performers in the back row. 

But with world-class players in key positions, strong international experience, enviable cohesion in most departments of the team, and one of the best coaches in the game, Ireland certainly have plenty of cause for optimism.

One of the tricky things about sport is that the opposition have a major say in deciding the outcome of games and tournaments.

For Ireland, there are obvious potential banana skins in the pool stage in Scotland and hosts Japan, although Schmidt’s men are favourites to emerge as winners of Pool A.

If they do so, their reward will be a quarter-final against the runner-up of Pool B, a group that contains reigning champions New Zealand and South Africa, as well as Italy, Canada and Namibia.

Rassie Erasmus Ireland could play Rassie Erasmus' Boks in the quarter-finals. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The early projections, then, have Ireland meeting Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks in a quarter-final at Tokyo Stadium on 20 October for what would likely be a seismic contest.

Schmidt would have been a devoted observer of the Boks kicking off their season with a 35-17 victory over Australia in Johannesburg on Saturday, ensuring a strong start to the shortened, three-round Rugby Championship.

Erasmus opted to omit around 15 players – many of them key men – ahead of this weekend’s clash with the All Blacks but South Africa were still in strong shape as they saw off a concerningly poor Wallabies outfit.

Debutant scrum-half Herschel Jantjies was highly impressive as he scored two tries, while Toulouse flanker Rynhard Elstadt and Bulls prop Lizo Gqoboka also won their first caps for the Boks.

There were some front-line players involved, with the monstrous and skillful Pieter- Steph du Toit chief among them.

Loosehead prop Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira was excellent, while the lock pairing of stand-in captain Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager were also strong.

As Erasmus has underlined himself, this was far from a perfect performance by the Boks. Their mauling was underwhelming and the defensive performance was disjoined – perhaps understandably with such a new-looking team. There was certainly more good than bad.

The positive start to 2019 follows on from an encouraging 2018, when Erasmus’ men beat England in the summer Test series and then earned South Africa’s first win on New Zealand soil since 2009 as they finished second in the Rugby Championship, coming agonisingly close to a second win over the All Blacks.

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Importantly ahead of the World Cup, the Boks appear to have found depth, partly by reintegrating foreign-based players.  

Frans Steyn was good off the bench at inside centre last weekend in what was his first appearance for the Boks since 2017, while Ulster back row Marcell Coetzee was also used as a sub to earn his first cap since 2015.

South Africa Australia Rugby Championship Herschel Jantjies made an impressive debut for the Boks last weekend. Source: Themba Hadebe

Northampton scrum-half Cobus Reinach was a try-scoring replacement after last appearing in 2015, while Saracens tighthead Vincent Koch is also now back in the mix.

Most of the players who have returned to the fold under Erasmus have previous experience in Test rugby or at the highest level of the club game, bringing important know-how to the group ahead of the World Cup.

Encouragingly for the Boks head coach, the vibe around his squad also appears to be peaking.

The collective mentality was illustrated last weekend when Herschel Jantjies was subbed off the pitch and greeted in utter delight by his squad-mates on the sideline, unused sub Dillyn Lleyds perhaps the most thrilled.

Regular captain Siya Kolisi, currently injured, ran the tee and water for the Boks, ensuring he remained part of the matchday effort and allowing him to communicate with game plan leaders on the pitch.

Watching the likes of Bongi Mbonambi, Trevor Nyakane and Makazole Mapimpi dancing and clapping the Boks fans post-match, it was clear that the spirit in this squad is in a good place.

With the Wallabies having disappointed last weekend, we now await a stronger test of the Boks’ quality when they face the All Blacks in Wellington on Saturday, albeit with their own first-choice players presumably all restored.

Erasmus is a shrewd operator and has strong knowledge of Irish rugby after his year-and-a-half with Munster, while he also has superb assistant coaches in defence specialist Jacques Nienaber and attack expert Swys de Bruin.

In short, if Ireland do end up facing the Boks in the World Cup quarter-finals, it is likely to be as tough, if not tougher, than any of their quarter-finals at previous tournaments.

There is the very real possibility that South Africa top Pool B and Ireland could end up facing New Zealand in that case. 

The clash between the Boks and the All Blacks in Yokohama on 21 September, day two of the competition, should be titanic.

Tadhg Furlong celebrates after the game Ireland have had success against the All Blacks in recent times. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

It goes without saying that taking on the defending back-to-back champions in a quarter-final would be extremely difficult, although Ireland have beaten the All Blacks in two of their most recent three meetings, as well as very nearly doing so in 2013.

Ireland’s most recent fixture against the Boks in November 2017 saw them secure a convincing 38-3 win but it’s very clear that Erasmus’ team is now a very different beast.

Schmidt’s Ireland have many attributes that make them a huge potential threat to either the Boks or the All Blacks and both Southern Hemisphere sides would love to avoid them in the quarter-finals.

Either way, as long as these heavyweights can avoid upsets in the pool stages, a fascinating quarter-final tie awaits for Ireland.

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Murray Kinsella

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