Irish injury woes up ante for Boks
As the buildup week to Saturday’s test against Ireland at Aviva Stadium has drawn on, so the more convinced the Springboks must have become that they are in the same situation as the Sharks were before the Currie Cup final two weeks ago -- in other words, it’s for them to lose.
A few weeks ago this loomed as a tough first assignment for Heyneke Meyer’s team on this end of year tour. Ireland may not be as strong as they were a few years back, but they could draw on a clutch of world class British and Irish Lions that on the best of days would have the capability to stretch most opponents on their home field.
But a lot can change in a short space of time in rugby, and while the Boks have also lost players to injury in the closing stages of the Currie Cup season, Ireland coach Declan Kidney is right when he says that South Africa boast the depth to cover for injuries. It is debatable that Ireland can say the same now that they have lost, among others, two British and Irish Lions captains in Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, plus other influential players such as Rob Kearney and Steven Ferris.
Indeed, no less than seven changes have been made to the Ireland side that last played, and while recognising that the last performance in question was in fact a 60-0 drubbing by the All Blacks at Waikato Stadium and that in itself would call for voluntary wholesale changes in most countries, for Ireland it just seems a few too many personnel changes.
And knowing that Ireland are so far below full strength can only mean one thing for the Boks -- it ups the ante for them in that this is now most certainly not a game they can afford to lose. For once it is not them that are under-strength, but their opponents, and with the initial weather forecasts for the weekend now appearing to be way off target, suddenly there is no ready-made, inbuilt excuse for the Boks to turn to should they fail.
The Boks may be a new team but of the two they look the more settled, and maybe that was something coach Meyer had in mind when he announced a side that had a surprising number of survivors from their last match, which was the comprehensive defeat to the All Blacks at Soccer City.
On the evidence of what happened at Nasrec, you might have expected Meyer to make at least some changes. Midfield would have been one, for promising though he may be as a fullback, Jaco Taute has yet to really look the part of an international class centre. Meyer appears to think as much too, for he has gone on record saying that he sees Taute as a fullback.
MAN FOR THE BIG OCCASION
Just why Meyer elected to leave out Western Province Currie Cup hero Juan de Jongh is difficult to fathom. One of the reasons was that Taute is bigger and that his size will be helpful in wet conditions, but coming down into Dublin on Thursday on the flight from London what was noticeable was just how dry it is currently.
All the talk about bad weather remains only that, talk, and those who have been here for the entire week say that the splotches of sunshine peeking through the cloud cover to illuminate part of the Irish Sea have been the norm rather than the exception. It may rain on Saturday evening, but the climatologists aren’t betting on it, with Dublin feeling surprisingly mild and temperate for this time of year.
So assuming that Meyer took cognizance of the weather before making his selection, it has to be something else that drove his decision to keep all but three of the players who started the losing test at Nasrec. It probably comes down to continuity, the need for combinations to start finding one another and for newcomers to start settling in the big time.
In that regard, the man who should feel the most pressure on Saturday is flyhalf Patrick Lambie, who has been backed by the coach publicly but not in wholesome, resounding fashion, and who starts this game reminded that Meyer has effectively said this may be his one and only chance to prove he can do it at international level.
Lambie has been the man for the big occasion in the past, and there is no reason he shouldn’t deliver on Saturday -- but still, there is just that nagging feeling that the dice is too heavily loaded in his and the Boks' favour. And you don’t have to think back too far to when last Lambie would have felt that way. That’s not a good omen.
Realistically though the Boks, provided the forwards carry on where they left off towards the end of The Castle Rugby Championship, should just have too much power in the areas where it matters most, and we should be expecting Lambie to take charge in the same way as he did with the Sharks in the 2010 Currie Cup final.
If the Boks get the result they are looking for, that is when the experimentation aspect might come into play. Before then though this is just a game they have to win for consideration of where the alternative result will leave them. End of year tours should be more about development than they are and results should perhaps be secondary to the development of the team, but a loss to this Ireland team will be too damaging to morale to provide any kind of benefit.
Ireland: 15-Simon Zebo, 14-Tommy Bowe, 13-Keith Earls, 12-Gordon D'Arcy, 11-Andrew Trimble, 10-Jonathan Sexton, 9-Conor Murray; 8-Jamie Heaslip (capt), 7-Chris Henry, 6-Peter O'Mahony, 5-Donnacha Ryan, 4-Mike McCarthy, 3-Mike Ross, 2-Richardt Strauss, 1-Cian Healy
Replacements: 16-Sean Cronin, 17-David Kilcoyne, 18-Michael Bent, 19-Donncha O'Callaghan, 20-Iain Henderson, 21-Eoin Reddan, 22-Ronan O'Gara, 23-Fergus McFadden.
South Africa: 15-Zane Kirchner, 14-JP Pietersen, 13- Jaco Taute,12- Jean de Villiers (capt), 11- Francois Hougaard, 10-Patrick Lambie, 9- Ruan Pienaar, 8- Duane Vermeulen, 7. Willem Alberts, 6- Francois Louw, 5- Juandre Kruger, 4- Eben Etzebeth, 3- Jannie du Plessis, 2- Adriaan Strauss, 1- Beast Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16- Schalk Brits,17- Pat Cilliers, 18- CJ van der Linde, 19- Flip van der Merwe, 20- Marcell Coetzee, 21- Morne Steyn, 22- Juan de Jongh, 23- Lwazi Mvovo.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).
Kick-off: 7:30pm (CAT, SA, GMT+2).
Prediction: Boks to win by more than 7.