In a bumper weekend for Irish men’s team sport on November 11, where the soccer men begin the final stretch for FIFA World Cup Qualification in Copenhagen against Denmark, the Irish also open their international rugby union season against the South African Springboks.

November 11, 2017

Ireland vs South Africa, Rugby Union, Kick off 17:30

Denmark vs Republic of Ireland, Soccer, Kick off, 19:45.

This article, however, focuses on  the rugby international and how Ireland can overcome a newly resurgent South African side. Based on the recently elapsed Rugby Championship, the Springboks have experienced a dramatic return to form since suffering a shock defeat to Italy in the past twelve months. Although they were heavily beaten by New Zealand in their first test, shipping fifty plus points, they went on to push the All Blacks all the way in the rematch in an entertaining 25-24 defeat.

From an Irish rugby perspective, this is worrying on two accounts. First, Ireland are playing them in just under a fortnight’s time, just at the time when confidence is coming back to the Boks. Second, if we are thinking long term, the South Africans are building nicely towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Ireland have been handed a pool that they would be expected to win. If that is the case, then the desired option would be to play the Boks, rather than New Zealand, in the Quarter Final. If they keep this form up to the World Cup, however, South Africa would present an unsavoury challenge.

Back to the present, though, how can Ireland beat them next month? The South African have historically been, and still are, known for their bulk in both the forwards and the backrow. In Ireland’s most recent encounter with them, the Test Series in June 2016, the Men in Green simply did not have the bench, stamina or muscle to prevent the South Africans causing havoc in the forwards unit.

In the narrow defeat to the All Blacks, both South African tries were mainly the work of the South African forwards. They have excellent ball retention and presentation. It’s very hard to operate the jackal to get turnover ball because the South Africans are experts at clearing bodies out of the breakdown area.  When they get past the 22 metre line, they usually have a box of tricks to get over the line, whether that is through offloading skills or decoy runners or simple, brute force.

So how do Ireland stop that?

First, Ireland will need a half back pairing that is up to the task. Fortunately, Ireland seem to have luck in that regard. Johnny Sexton steered Leinster to the recent Champions’ Cup over Glasgow Warriors with his consistently excellent array of passing and running lines. Apart from one blip, Sexton’s touchline kicking was reliable.  His place kicking has been good from relatively tricky positions as well. Conor Murray, Ireland’s primary scrum half, has continued to be a leader for Munster with his box kicking and poaching ability, helping himself to a try against Racing 92. However, he did manage to get himself sin binned against Castres. If Murray can keep his discipline and form, he and Sexton will prove essential.

This is because Ireland will need to play the game in the right areas of the field, especially if Ireland cannot boast the bench to compete with South Africa physically for 80 plus minutes. This means that Ireland will need to be sound at set piece to keep the ball in the scoring zone as much as possible. Devin Toner should provide that, along with Ian Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander.

The All Blacks showed in their latest victory over the Springboks that the latter find it more than difficult to deal with a running, wide game. This is one of the effective game plans if Ireland can fine tune their handling skills, vary the point of the attack by good support running, dummies, and grubber kicks, then this may prove a route to victory. However, this style can prove a weakness if the team does not have a sufficient level of fitness for it, as Glasgow Warriors showed in the final minutes of their defeat to Leinster. Therefore, Ireland will need to make sure that they are well stocked, aerobically, if they want to play the game that way.

Last, but not least, Ireland will need to ensure that they are up to the task defensively. The South Africans caused panic in the All Blacks defensive line in their latest match in the Rugby Champions. The excellent South African ball carriers force even very good teams to contract their line as they commit more to the breakdown. This is something that Ireland have struggled with in a match as recently as their defeat to Scotland.  Watch the opening try of that game and you will see that a failure in commination results in a woefully unbalanced line where the Irish, already tied down at the ruck, are unable to drift across to prevent a simple walk in for the Scotsmen.

Contrast that with the opening minutes of the famous win over the All Blacks in Chicago in November 2016. Ireland commit relatively little to the breakdown. Instead, they have a defensive line that is spread out left to right, from touchline to touchline. Using this balanced defensive shape, they trust expert tacklers such as CJ Stander and Robbie Henshaw to shut down the principle ball carriers in what has become known as the blitz defence.

If Ireland can do each of these things correctly, set piece, running game, kicking and defence, then they are well on their way to nullifying the South African springboks. Here’s hoping for a good game on November 11.

Conor Lynott – Sports Editor