Arguably the most anticipated match-up of the Rugby World Cup pool stages takes place tomorrow evening, when Ireland take on South Africa for a earth-shaking clash in Pool B. The top two ranked sides in World Rugby will collide at the Stade de France, for an unforgettable third-round match.
The excitement is palpable for this fixture, with neither side giving an inch in their two previous matches. Both South Africa and Ireland crushed Romania, with the Springboks also recording a win over Scotland. Andy Farrell’s side ran out another high scoring win, in their 59-16 victory over Tonga. The stage is set in Saint-Denis, for a blockbuster encounter between the two best teams in the world.
Springboks legend Schalk Brits has cast his vote over the outcome of the fixture, and believes that South Africa have a winning strategy that can beat Ireland. Speaking to Genting, Brits said;
“They (South Africa) have a definite strategy on how to beat Ireland. Ireland are a phenomenal World Cup machine. The way they get in place, and the way they run their structures is phenomenal. Andy Farrell has given them a hard under belly.
“We always thought Ireland would be in a game, but eventually crack. Farrell has given them a belief that is amazing. He is a great coach who coached me at Saracens. He has given belief to the players.
“They never spoke about not making a World Cup quarter final. Farrell was the guy who said ‘we need to get this monkey off our back’. Keeping quiet doesn’t do that. We need to talk about it. And it is in the players hands to do that. He takes issues head on.”
“I think it will be South Africa (to win) by four or five (points).”
“My prediction six weeks ago was always that we would play New Zealand in the quarters and France would play Ireland. I stick to that. South Africa and France will win their quarter finals with Dupont. When you’re at home the 50-50 calls tend to go your way. France are going to be phenomenal.”
The foundations of the Ireland squad are made up from a contingency of Leinster players. The Dublin side struggled to win two high-stakes matches last season, as Leinster lost the United Rugby Championship semi-final to Munster, and the Heineken Champions Cup Final to La Rochelle. Both of these matches took place in their home Aviva Stadium, and Brits discussed the possibility of any mental drawbacks in this weekend’s decisive moments.
“There are a lot of Leinster boys in the team and they didn’t win the European Cup. But they did get to the final.
“The big thing for Ireland is Sexton firing, because they get momentum from that. But even if you have the best structures in place, it is very hard if you are getting worked over in a scrum or lineout, and losing territorial advantage by giving penalties away.
“That has a psychological impact on a team. You lose energy every time there is a penalty against you, it saps the opposition.
“You can have magicians in the back division but it is very hard to win if your pack doesn’t dominate.”
Speaking on Sexton, Brits believes that Ireland’s captain will have a target on his back for this game. The fly-half recently surpassed Ronan O’Gara’s Ireland points tally, to become the all-time leading points scorer for his country, with 1,090 points. However, after the jubilant scenes against Tonga, Brits expects a tough day at the office for Sexton against the Springboks.
“He (Sexton) is a great rugby player. He is playing as well as he was ten years ago. Actually better. He is key to their success. Ireland functions a lot better with him there than without. So we need to put a lot of pressure on him.”
Sexton recieved a three match ban for verbally abusing a match official, after Leinster lost the 2023 Champions Cup Final. Sexton spent his time on the sidelines well, and recovered from a groin injury in time for the Rugby World Cup.
It’s the Springboks who have been dealt a crucial injury blow ahead of this weekend’s match. Hooker Malcolm Marx becomes the latest high-profile Springbok to be side-lined, with Brits not down-playing the significance of this loss to Jacques Nienaber’s side.
“It is huge. I said before the one player we could not afford to lose was Malcolm. We only have one other hooker. The way we use him with the Bomb squad and as a starter, and he is a world class player.
“It’s like New Zealand losing Dan Carter or Richie McCaw. He is such a great guy. His value within the squad and outside is phenomenal.”
The expected alterations see Bongi Mbonambi moved up from the ‘bomb squad’, and into the Springboks starting XV. Due to the vacancy opened up in the squad, Rassie Erasamus has called Handre Pollard back into the fold, yet has previously said that the fly-half would only be used if South Africa took more injury hits. Manie Libbok has been leading the back-line well so far in this Rugby World Cup, with Brits full of praise for the Stormers man.
“I haven’t seen the back line function as well as it has done for a very long time. He (Libbok) is such a talent when it comes to attacking play. He has been given an opportunity and taken it. He has given space and that extra dimension to our attack.
“But we must remember Pollard’s history. People forget his achievements. He is a world class ten who has played at Montpellier who was great for the (Leicester) Tigers, but was injured and did not have an opportunity to show himself.
“Handre Pollard has won a World Cup and is world class. He has matured and will help Manie to be the best player he can be and when he (Pollard) is asked to play he will step in and will rock. Manie’s kicking wasn’t that great but if you only focus on a player’s negative points you will find weaknesses everywhere.”
As Brits mentioned, there has been a great deal of focus on Libbok’s inconsistent kicking, despite shining in all other areas of the game. Brits believes that South Africa fans need to look away from Libbok’s kicking and turn their focus to the threat that Sexton will bring from the boot. The former Springboks hooker admitted that Ireland’s exploits into the back-field, are his main area of concern for Saturday’s game.
“I am biased. We need a bit of luck. If we get injuries on the pitch it is going to be tight. But if we can get the dominance we should get from a maul or scrum it becomes very hard playing against us.
“From a Springbok perspective we have got it right. We need to get dominance in the set piece and defend. Can we give them no go forward? That’s the big question. If they can’t get going forward from their carriers and from their structured play it’s hard.
“Their attack needs momentum and it needs quick ball. We will have to close down space, make sure you double hit them, push them back and slow the ball down.
“The one thing I am scared of is that from the start, Andy Farrell will try to turn our defence. It is horrendous trying to tackle someone who is kicking the ball all the time. You lose energy. Ireland will play a bit less at the beginning of the game but later on when they get inside our half, they will play the multiple phase attack which they do so well.”
The Springbok’s 7-1 split between replacement forwards and backs, has also come under recent focus. The tactic worked to perfection when South Africa handed New Zealand their biggest ever defeat (35-7) to close out the World Cup preparations at Twickenham last month. However, Brits identifies that if the tactic comes undone, the whole match could fall apart.
“South Africa are changing strategies to make sure there are different ways of applying scoreboard pressure. South Africa showed that in the game against New Zealand. We had so many kicking opportunities and preferred going to the corner. That was pre-planned with the 7-1 split.
“If you scrum and maul all the time you get a build up of lactic acid. It is weird but being in a scrum for an amount of time and being under pressure your legs start feeling like jelly and you can’t run as you would want to.”
“It is a massive risk. But like most things in any kind of investment it is high risk, and it comes off they call you a genius. If it doesn’t you get slaughtered. The coaches have picked players who can play in different positions.”
South Africa are looking to become the first nation to win four Rugby World Cup titles. They are currently level with New Zealand, having won the competition three times in 1995, 2007 and 2019. Brits explained how the Rugby World Cup is the be-all and end-all for the ‘Boks, and that each victory brought more than just the Web Ellis trophy back home to South Africa.
“We know how to play to our strengths. The South African public had a proper go at the coaches between the World Cups. I remember one discussion with Rassie when he spoke about rotation, trying different combinations and growing depth.
“He said, ’Guys can you remember who won the 2006 Rugby Championship or any other?’ I couldn’t and I was involved in some of them. His point was it is all about the World Cup. Their focus is getting ready for World Cups between World Cups. They are very precise on the way they plan. He is where he wants to be going into this World Cup.”
“1995 was the hardest and it had a massive impact on South Africa. ’07 was important for that specific group and ours in 2019 was great for what is happening in South Africa for all the internal economic problems and racial issues.
“In 2019 the focus was not just to win a World Cup, it was something much bigger; trying to show South Africa that regardless of race, religion or background, we can show SA (that) we can work together. If there is a bigger meaning to just lifting a cup it becomes very personal.”