New-look Ireland face severe test against Boks
By Ian Cusack
This evening’s showdown at the Aviva Stadium features two teams whose performances over the past year have ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime and if things weren’t already difficult to predict, a string of high-profile injuries has forced Declan Kidney to betray his conservative nature with an experimental selection.
The loss of two former British and Irish Lions captains is far from ideal preparation for a Test series. But while the absence of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell - not to mention Rory Best, Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney - has dented Ireland’s stature in the autumn series, it has compelled Kidney to provide some insight into what the squad looks like without some of the senior members of the so-called 'golden generation'.
Two weeks after arriving in Ireland, New Zealander Michael Bent will don a green jersey, march out onto the Aviva Stadium’s turf and try his best to remember the words to Ireland’s Call. Should he take to the field it will not only mark the first time Irish rugby fans will see him represent their country, for the vast majority it will be the first time they see him with a rugby ball in his hand.
The excuse proffered will be that Ireland lack a tighthead prop ready for a Test match environment with three of the four provinces playing non-Ireland qualified players – BJ Botha, John Afoa and Nathan White – at tighthead. While that assertion has some truth, it fails to ask the obvious question; why isn’t there another tighthead? How has it gotten to the point that Declan Kidney and his staff have to frantically flick through the catalogue of world props desperately hoping to find an Irish connection?
Bent’s selection confirms the lack of forward-planning behind the scenes as John Hayes did his job without fuss, racking up 105 caps and keeping a major prop shortage in the background. It shouldn’t be forgotten that our current number 3 Mike Ross was allowed to slip through the cracks before Leinster hauled him back from the English Premiership.
We wait to see if Bent makes an appearance today but one surprise which will definitely be on show is Simon Zebo wearing number 15. For a coach who has repeatedly shown reluctance to deviate from the status quo, putting 22-year-old Zebo at fullback in his second senior start for Ireland is a massive gamble.
From an attacking perspective the appeal is obvious; Zebo has pace to burn and is lethal in the broken field as he recently reminded us with a brilliant try against Racing Metro. He also has a howitzer of a left boot which offers the attractive option of having a left- and right-footed kicker on the pitch.
He looks increasingly comfortable under the high ball and one thing is clear, he is a young man brimming with confidence and self-belief.
One thing he is not, is a fullback, at least not yet. Zebo’s Munster career has seen him play almost exclusively on the wing and even with Cork Constitution and in his schoolboy rugby with PBC Cork, Zebo has looked at ease on the wing.
As the leading candidate to inherit BOD’s 13 jersey, Earls was the correct choice at outside centre. He has grown into the position and it is only through playing there at the highest level that he can turn himself into a top class international centre.
The remainder of the backline picks itself with one glaring exception. Kidney has repeatedly insisted on picking the “form” players. How then does he justify excluding Paul Marshall from the initial 31-man squad? The Ulster scrum-half has undoubtedly been the form number 9 in the country with Mark Anscombe switching Ruan Pienaar to flyhalf so he can accommodate both playmakers in his starting XV.
As he has repeatedly proven in a white shirt as well as a green one, Pienaar makes things happen. He is a livewire and will be one of the biggest threats this afternoon which makes Marshall, the scrum-half who trains with Pienaar every week, Ireland’s best option at 9. Instead Kidney has reverted to type, choosing Murray and Reddan. A major opportunity to see Marshall bring his exciting style to the big stage is lost.
South Africa’s kicking game has been a talking point since Heyneke Meyer took over as head coach. The Springboks are more reluctant to run first phase ball unless in enemy territory. They may be without promising young flyhalf Johan Goosen but his replacement, 22-year-old Pat Lambie, will know that Ireland have a rookie playing fullback and we can expect him to test Zebo’s positional sense as well as his nerves with some early kicks.
Ireland’s injury list won’t cut it as an excuse if they falter this afternoon given the raft of top class players ruled out for South Africa. Frans Steyn, Johan Goosen, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Bismarck du Plessis, Andries Bekker, Jacques Potgieter, Heinrich Brussow, Pierre Spies and the in-form Bryan Habana are all unavailable to the Springboks.
Meyer has clarified that he sees this tour as an opportunity for his players to adapt their game according to the Northern Hemisphere climate. His pack will bring their customary bulk and aggression and as newly appointed skipper Jamie Heaslip asserted, Ireland mustn’t concede an inch at the collision zone, if South Africa can gain quick ball they have the firepower out wide to hurt Ireland even without Habana.
Having qualified to play for Ireland on account of his three-year residency, Richardt Strauss’s affinity to the jersey is being tested by the prospect of facing his home nation and his cousin, Adriaan. The hooker’s selection was a no-brainer in the absence of Rory Best and it gives Ireland the bonus of an all-Leinster front row.
The absence of Ferris and O’Brien sees the backrow shift from a tackle-breaking, ball-carrying unit to a more combative force, likely to make an impact at the breakdown. With just two caps to his name Chris Henry has had to bide his time to make an impression on the international stage and he is fully deserving of the opportunity.
As Ireland look beyond the long-running lock pairing of O’Connell and O’Callaghan, the Springboks have had to replace arguably the most effective second row unit ever; Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha. Mike McCarthy has been given the nod to partner Donnacha Ryan. McCarthy will have to make his presence felt against the monstrous unit Eben Etzebeth, who with eight caps at just 21 is in line to be another great Springboks lock.
Kicking for field position and an aggressive assault at the collision will be the crux of South Africa’s attack. Ireland will look to match the forwards for intensity before unleashing a potent backline. Sexton has the experience to dictate a game at this level more than Lambie but Pienaar is the one likely to pull the strings for the Springboks. Disappointing as they were in the Rugby Championship, the experience of playing together so recently hands the ‘Boks an advantage; Ireland 18 South Africa 24.