SA, Ireland too close to call
Dublin - It’s starting to become a tired old theme and it is used by opposition teams in almost every city the Springboks visit - the world champions are thugs, they’re nasty, they are bullies, and the entire challenge revolves lifting yourselves to confront them physically.
On this tour alone the French did it when the Boks were in Toulouse at the start, and it was hardly surprising, given the spiteful nature of much of the British and Irish Lions series on South African soil in mid-year, that Ireland should do the same this week.
Brian O’Driscoll’s men have left nothing to the imagination in their build-up to Saturday’s final tour match at Croke Park in Dublin. If you read some of the press coming out of Ireland, you would be excused for imagining that the Irish are preparing to go to war, and not just preparing for a rugby match.
Although it is understandable that Ireland, who are in the rare position of being European champions after winning the Six Nations, should want to make the most of this game by building it as some kind of world championship showdown, the froth that they have got themselves into does come across as a bit over the top and silly.
Yes, the first step to beating the Boks is to confront them physically. We saw that in the last test of the Lions series in Johannesburg, again in Brisbane in the Tri-Nations, and certainly in Toulouse. The Boks have built much of their success this year around their superior physicality and the fact they do seem to scare the living daylights out of much of their opposition.
But when the opposition teams talk up their own physicality the way they do, you get the impression that they are trying to convince themselves, trying to overcome their own fear and perhaps their sense of awe at what the world champions can do.
After the first test against the Lions, the visitors admitted that they may have paid the Boks too much respect (though at the same time they also underestimated key areas of the South African game). So perhaps it is understandable that Ireland are being careful of not doing the same again.
What is clear is that this is a grudge game. When O’Driscoll left South Africa after being injured in the second test, he made it clear to members of the travelling British media that he was looking forward to having a crack at the South Africans at Croke Park. Other Irish players said the same thing when they left the tour.
Bok skipper John Smit also makes it clear in his book, Captain in the Cauldron, that there was bad blood between the teams, with the series being played in what he described as an unpleasant atmosphere. The Lions decision not to mix with the Boks after games, like Tri-Nations opponents do, was ascribed to the feelings of a senior Ireland player.
Which Ireland player was it, O’Connell or O’Driscoll? That will have to remain speculation, but there shouldn’t be any surprises that it was an Irishman who objected. There has been a bit of an edge between the Boks and Ireland ever since previous coach Jake White told a Dublin press conference in 2004 that there was no Irishman good enough to make his team.
Of course, the Boks lost that game on the basis of the controversial mistake by referee Paul Honiss, who told Smit to go back and address his players after they were penalised, and then awarded a try when Ronan O’Gara took advantage of having the Bok players’ backs to him and took a tap penalty.
So there is unfinished business for the Boks too, particularly given the way the under-strength team taken on tour by White in the year before the last World Cup were outplayed. That was a cold and blustery night, and by all accounts it will be again, so the clarion call from the leadership of both teams to emphasise physicality is not misplaced in terms of strategy.
The Irish looked impressive when they ran against Australia two weeks ago, but if it is wet, this will be an arm-wrestle, and the stronger team physically will win it. Last year, or the year before that, you would have bet on the superior physical unit being the southern hemisphere side.
But if the sequence of Autumn tests, coupled with the much more closely contested Lions series than many expected, has shown us anything, it is that the flow of players from south to north in pursuit of European currency is levelling the playing fields.
The Boks, as world champions and Tri-Nations champions, should be expected to win, but the French showed two weeks ago that they are extremely vulnerable when the opposition do make a physical statement. The Bok form on the tour thus far makes this one too close to call, and only a foolish person would bet their house against the Irish delivering on their hype.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll (captain) , Paddy Wallace, Keith Earls, Jonathan Sexton, Tomas O’Leary, Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, John Hayes, Jerry Flannery, Clan Healy.
Reserves: Sean Cronin, Tony Buckley, Leo Cullen, Sean O’Brien, Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy.
Springbok team: Zane Kirchner, JP Pietersen, Jaque Fourie, Wynand Olivier, Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Fourie du Preez, Danie Rossouw, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussow, Victor Matfield, Andries Bekker, BJ Botha, John Smit (captain), Tendai Mtawarira.
Reserves: Bismarck du Plessis, CJ van der Linde, Francois Hougaard, Jean Deysel, Dewald Potgieter, Ruan Pienaar, Jean de Villiers.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales), Kick-off: 16.30pm SA time. TV: M-Net/SS1