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Clash of the titans incoming as Ireland and South Africa clash in Paris

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Saturday Sep 23, 2023

A tournament of firsts is how the 2023 Rugby World Cup will be remembered when the final curtain comes down on October 28th at the iconic Stade de France in Paris.

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Kicking the tournament off at the same venue as the final, hosts France laid down a marker as they dispatched of three times World Champions New Zealand.

Reaffirming their place atop the pile, Les Bleus were impervious on that hot September 8th evening. As La Marseillaise echoed through the narrow streets of Paris, one could be forgiven for forgetting that whilst France was the team to beat, there were several other strong contenders lying in wait for their first opportunity.

No two teams look more capable of spoiling the French party than reigning World Champions South Africa and the World’s number one ranked team, Ireland.

Both sides opened their account in impressive fashion as Ireland racked up a record 82 – 8 victory over Romania, whilst the Springboks dispatched of Scotland 18 – 3.

A week later, the Springboks would add further damage to the Romanians, securing the quickest-ever four-try bonus point in tournament history en route to a 76 – 0 victory.

Ireland would face a sterner challenge squaring off against a physical Tongan side but would ultimately show their class to lock in a 59 – 16 victory.

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Thus, the stage was set for yet another historic first in World Cup history as the top two ranked teams in the world get set to meet in what will be a decisive pool match.

On the streets of Paris this morning, there is a palpable anxious energy circulating as the city is painted green, with an estimated 80,000+ Irish and South African fans bubbling in anticipation.

As ever, the spirit amongst the rivalling fans is truly stellar as banter flies between the two sides.

Yet, as the clock strikes 21.00 tonight, the light-hearted nature will give way to what will be the most ferocious of battles.

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Billed as the game’s best attack against the top defence, Ireland’s expansive fifteen-man game faces its greatest challenge in the face of the Bok’s blitz defence.

In an interesting clash of styles, both sides have confirmed their intention to stick to their famed game plans.

Naming their team early in the week as they always do, Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber showed his hand by naming seven forwards on the bench. Creating a circus in the media world as the move was debated ad nauseam.

As ever with the World Champions, the decision was met with applause and disgust in equal measures. Some lauded the move as revolutionary as the Boks looked to utilise their unmatched physicality, whilst others lambasted it as a direct move against the spirit of the game.

Whatever your feelings on the decision, there can be no arguing that the Boks know what they bring to the party and now the question is, can the Irish handle the heat?

Fortunately, one does not have to look too far back, as the two sides last met in November 2022.

On that cold Dublin night, Ireland held off the Boks’ physicality to secure a 19 – 16 victory. Whilst the Springbok fans felt the loss was due in large part to a rather dire kicking performance from their goal-kickers. It is worth remembering that Ireland, too, left several points on the pitch that night as their talismanic leader, Johnny Sexton, had somewhat of an off night.

Crucially, Sexton would land the necessary penalty to eke out the victory and continue Ireland’s remarkable winning run.

Since then, Ireland have remained undefeated, securing a Six Nations Grand Slam in the process. Now on a run of fifteen consecutive victories and having lost just twice in their past thirty outings, this team are serial winners.

The Springboks have lost just twice since that meeting in November; like Ireland, their two losses were away from home. Yet, neither fixture will be keeping the Springbok coaching staff up at night as their recent form would prove that they are hitting peak form at just the right time.

Thumping Wales in Cardiff before handing the All Blacks a record victory at Twickenham Stadium in London, South Africa showed an attacking game unlike any they had shown in recent memory.

With game-changing attacking threats in Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe, this Springbok backline is atypical of a South African backline. Whilst their centre pairing of Damian De Allende and Jesse Kriel fit the mould as hard-hitting, direct carries. The other four are quick-footed, hot steppers with true game-breaking ability, capable of leaving defenders clutching at air.

Key Match Up
Yet, for all of this brilliance out wide, the Bok gameplan starts up front, laying the platform for the wizards out back to sprinkle their magic.

As such, the challenge for Ireland will not only stop the Boks from slowing down their lightning-quick ruck game, which is the best in the world. But cause disruptions of their own with their sublime turn-over merchants, namely Tadhg Beirne and Ronan Kelleher.

Should they secure quick ball, Ireland will look to employ their short passing game to go through the heart of the Bok’s rush defence.

Perhaps offering the best analysis of what Ireland will need to do to break this seemingly impenetrable wall is former Ireland flyhalf turned coaching star Ronan O’Gara (ROG).

Speaking to World Rugby’s Jim Hamilton on “The Big Jim Show”, ROG said of the Springbok defence.

“The key to beat a rush defence is you’ve got to go through it, and after a lot of people try and go around it so there’s a complete – I think – misunderstanding of what you’re trying to achieve.

“For me, the key on playing against the rush defence is you got to attack flailing arms, and that’s a skill in itself because if you run into bodies, you’re tackled behind the gain line, and the ball is going to be held up and ruck speed will be four of five seconds, but if you can identify opportunities for late footwork at the line into flailing arms, the capacity for high shots, which today is a red card or a yellow card on an average occasion.

“Footwork and fend at the line, short passes… if you try to play long pass, long pass, they [South Africa] will eat you up with salt. It’s exactly what they are looking for.

“What you need to do is reduce the space between your nine and ten, or your first receiver. Reduce your space – do you get me, so your nine and ten might only take three defenders, then your ten to the next attacker might only take three defenders. They’ve probably got eight on the line, but you’ve got to know that if you can get accuracy on that second pass, say from nine to 10, and say 10 to Bundee Aki or [Garry] Ringrose, then there’s a potential for what will happen there for their shooter to go for him, but he might have the capacity to tip [pass].

“Whose behind here [points behind imagined second receiver]? You’ve got James Lowe or Hansen… they’re gone. Because we’ve tried to go through them here, we’ve taken maybe seven defenders. That’s my theory on it.”

Focusing in on how Ireland can disrupt the Springbok’s overall game, ROG paid homage to his long-time teammate Paul O’Connell, who is now in charge of the Irish forwards.

“I’m biased, but you see the excellence of Paul O’Connell, in terms of, whatever day it is, one to ten wins you a World Cup, I’m absolutely convinced. You don’t need your a fifteen-man game; you need one to ten home, and then everything else is a bonus, but what Ireland are doing extremely well at the minute is that you have, for example, Kelleher here, Porter here, Furlong here; all threats all capable playing the ball. James Ryan or McCarthy or Henderson, O’Mahony, van der Flier, Doris. Their skills are very unappreciated because if they were in an All Black jersey, we’d be all [over them], but that, for me, is something I think doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

“They’re all good decision-makers and all as opposed to just having your ten and twelve as decision-makers. Ireland, as you see with their phase game, it is very rare that they score in the corner. We’re going through teams now, and it’s impressive to watch.”

Having broken down the fixture so eloquently, O’Gara’s assessment of both sides and the match itself, it is abundantly clear that the Irish will hold a healthy respect for the South African pack but will not fear it.

Words From The Camps
Echoing ROG’s sentiment was Ireland’s try-scoring specialist, James Lowe, who was speaking to the media ahead of the clash.

“This week is a whole new beast, isn’t it?” said the winger.

“We are really going to find out where we are at, and we think we are in a good place.

“We have put ourselves on the front foot, and hopefully, on Saturday, the performance will show that.

“To really put a statement on this competition is hopefully what we’re going to get, and the performance will reflect that.

“Obviously, as the stakes get bigger the further we go throughout this tournament, it’s not do or die, but there’s no way we are going out there to lose.”

On the other side of the fence, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi was in agreement with Lowe’s assessment of the magnitude of the fixture.

“I think this is as big as it gets,” Kolisi said.

“We are playing the number one team in the world in the World Cup; that is what you dream about as a child. They are an amazing side; they have won 14 in a row, so it’s going to take the best of us to beat them. I am looking forward to it, and I can see the excitement all around the world; everybody is keen for this game.”

Prediction
Such is the tight manner of this fixture that the majority of bookies have made it a near even scratch and have fluctuated slightly either way throughout the week.

Based on the previous meeting between the two sides, there really is little to choose between the two.

With such little between them, one key area of advantage that Ireland holds is the goal-kicking consistency of Sexton. Having landed more big-time kicks throughout his career than just about any player in history, Sexton will not be overawed by the occasion.

For the Springboks, Libbok has been a revelation and a key component of their newfound attacking game. His consistency from the kicking tee has been such that the Boks have had to improvise by handing the tee to Faf de Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe and Damian Willemse. This passing of the book has yielded little joy and has made the recall of World Cup-winning marksman Handre Pollard to the squad a no-brainer.

Pollard, however, is not available for this evening’s fixture, and as such, they could prove to be the South African’s undoing.

However, with this being said. Should the Boks get off to a hot start as they have in recent times, they have the ability to suffocate teams unlike just about any other in the world.

Ireland, too, are famed for their fast starts, and as such, the opening twenty minutes of this clash is likely to yield the most intense period of rugby we are likely to see all tournament.

With this intensity, fitness will play a key role in the outcome and, whilst South African ‘Bomb Squad” will come onto the park to freshen up the pack. The backline will need to remain intact to ensure this tactic remains viable.

Taking this into consideration, at face value, Ireland appears to be the fitter of the two sides and will look to move the South Africans around the park. This, combined with Sexton’s goal-kicking and the reliable boots of substitutes Jack Crowley and Conor Murray, Ireland should have just enough to hang on. Ireland by 6.

South Africa vs. Ireland line-ups
South Africa: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff

Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Jean Kleyn, 20 RG Snyman, 21 Marco van Staden, 22 Kwagga Smith, 23 Cobus Reinach

Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 1 Andrew Porter

Replacements: 16 Dan Sheehan, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Ryan Baird, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Jack Crowley, 23 Robbie Henshaw

Match officials
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)

Touch judges: Mathieu Raynal (France) & James Doleman (New Zealand)

TMO: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)

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