Cape Town - There’s a fairly strong, though not exclusive, emphasis on Bok players whose places remain under some scrutiny in our selection of attractive individual duels in Saturday’s rugby Test between Ireland and South Africa in Dublin (19:30 SA time).
Although Malcolm Marx looks solidly nailed down at first-choice hooker for the Springboks, Andries Coetzee and Ross Cronje have fairly fragile holds on fullback and scrumhalf respectively, whilst Francois Louw faces another acid examination of his remodelled credentials as a No 8 when he goes face to face with a certain Christiaan Johan Stander.
Here are four suggestions - two backline, two up front - of match-ups to keep a particularly keen eye on at Aviva Stadium …
Andries Coetzee v Rob Kearney
It’s probably fair to say it is now or never - on this tour, maybe even just this Test match? - for Coetzee in the last line of defence for the Springboks. He has delivered a string of “respectable” efforts for the cause since his debut earlier this year. Coach and namesake Allister Coetzee has shown almost extraordinary loyalty toward him - he’s played all nine Tests in 2017 - even as any truly special qualities at the premier level have remained elusive. In fairness, he may not need to look too flashy in the northern hemisphere winter, where security and sound positional play at the back is often paramount; improved tactical kicking from the No 15 would be a good start for him on this venture. There’s extra pressure because his opposite number, Kearney, is a hugely-established class act ... a purposeful, strong ball-in-hander and assertive kicker into the bargain. Remember that he was absent injured when Ireland so nearly upset the Boks on our own turf last year.
Ross Cronje v Conor Murray
What to make of Cronje? Scrumhalf has been something of a thorny issue for the Boks ever since the mighty Fourie du Preez rode unassumingly off into the sunset. The blond Lions customer has brought an element of stability and welcome intelligence to the position in recent times, but he is also not the nippiest of No 9s in several respects and that still counts against him in some critics’ evaluation of the jersey in Bok terms. He can silence lingering doubters if he manages to get an edge over the tall, highly-touted Murray, up there with the world’s finest at present and also more Test-hardened with his 62 caps to Cronje’s mere six. Murray also has infinitely more knowledge of soft-turf rugby, considering his counterpart’s current franchise employment on the contrasting, rock-hard Highveld and in altogether warmer, sunnier climes.
Francois Louw v CJ Stander
One was born in Cape Town and earns his club-level bread and butter for Bath. The other hails from George yet plays for Munster and Ireland. But there also won’t be any special cosmopolitan kindness on offer when “Flo” and CJ lock horns at No 8 on Saturday. At least as far as international rugby is concerned, both men are novices in that position - each starting only his second Test with that specific number on the back – and much more accustomed to side-of-scrum activity. Who looks more polished and makes the right decisions in a key strategic slot may be a big game-influencer in Dublin. Stander sports greater general familiarity and proven assuredness with eighth-man - remember what a prospect he looked there while still on the Loftus books up to the end of 2012? - but the veteran Louw has fine, broad street-wisdom in rugby and that could help offset any advantage for his direct rival in “compass” comfort ...
Malcolm Marx v Rory Best
Much has rightly been said in the lead-up about the battles between pretty gnarly sets of props in this Test … including one or two lurking menacingly on the bench. But this is also another very useful individual-tussle box to tick for the burgeoning young Marx at hooker in his journey toward international stardom. He will boast a physical advantage - he does versus most comers! - against Best, which may be just as well because the square-jawed, 35-year-old Irishman (104 caps) sports an awful lot more experience at this level than the Lions favourite does. He also leads the home troops, often animatedly, and has played six previous times against the very Boks - over a period spanning 11 years. How accurate these two are at their “basics” will be important in expected greasy, chilly conditions; some lead-up rain is in the current forecast. Each will have a towering middle-of-lineout “caller” to liaise with: Best the 2.10m Devin Toner and Marx 2.06m Lood de Jager.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing