The main event of this weekend’s Rugby World Cup action, is the titanic clash between South Africa and Ireland. The number one and two ranked sides in the world will take centre stage at the Stade de France, for tomorrow evening’s late kick-off.
This will certainly be a hard-hitting battle, with both the Springboks and Ireland boasting a squad of bruising ball carriers and brutal tacklers. Former Ireland back-row Alan Quinlan is eagerly anticipating this contest, with some heavy collisions expected in just over 24 hours time in Paris. Quinlan praised the aggression of the Springboks, and admirably summed them up as ‘hard b*****ds’ ahead of the Ireland game.
Quinlan, who was speaking about the latest Rugby World Cup odds said;
“It’s like playing against a really confrontational group of 15 players. There’s certain players who play the game and they’re narky or they have this poker face on, and there’s other guys who are more relaxed and you can nearly have a laugh with them (when) walking to a line out.
“They are not as intense as South Africa’s template and this is not an insult, and it’s in their DNA that they are completely confrontational. To put on that jersey you’ve got to fight for not just your rugby team, but you feel that they’re kind of fighting for a bigger picture all the time. When you’re tackling guys, even at the very top level, you know, you don’t have to be at a hundred percent; an 80% effort can put in a good functional tackle and get an impact.
“Against South Africa, you’ve got to be ready a hundred percent every time because, there’s just a fight there, an aggression that’s not dirty in any way. But their mentality goes back to history.
“They’ve had to fight for everything. They’re just hard b*****ds! They don’t pick soft players. First and foremost, they look at players that have got to be confrontational, aggressive and in your face. First and foremost, they want to run over you. So that’s what you get when you play South Africa all the time.
“You don’t get it when you play Wales, Scotland, England, even New Zealand. Other teams try and run around you a little bit. The problem we all have now with rugby is that South Africa can run over you but they can now also run around you if they need to.”
The former Munster man identified two players that will be running out at the Stade de France with targets on their back. Quinlan believes that Ireland captain Johnny Sexton will be under heavy pressure from the off, with the favour returned on the Springboks’ fly half Manie Libbok.
“If I was playing in the backrow for the Boks at the weekend, I’d be trying to get at Johnny Sexton. Of course everyone knows that. And I am sure the Irish backrow will be trying to get at Manie Libbok.
“Sexton is a very strong mentally tough and physical player and he’s used to it. You saw from the Scotland game, the pressure South Africa put on Finn Russell, because if you give him time in space he will come up with magical things. So that won’t shock anyone.
“He knows what’s coming and he’s just got to get his timing right, time his passes and hopefully not be on the end of a few (Eben) Etzebeth or (Siya) Kolisi tackles! It is what it is. He knows that and he’s always had that kind of pressure. Teams go at him.
“I am sure (Damian) De Allende will try and run at him. From an Irish point of view, he’s not afraid of it. The back-row is there to help protect him, as well and support him and give him a few options, and make sure he doesn’t get isolated. I don’t see Johnny Sexton standing three or four yards deeper. I think he plays on the line and if he’s going to receive a late tackle, but he gets his pass away, I think he’ll take that.”
Libbok has been the focus of some recent scrutiny, with his kicking game heavily criticised from the tee. However, Libbok has shown his prowess when kicking out of hand, which was demonstrated best with his ‘no-look’ kick, which set up Kurt-Lee Arendse’s try against Scotland. Nevertheless, Libbok’s completion from the tee is not as high as he’d like, with the pressure on the Stormers man now Handre Pollard is back in camp.
South Africa Director of Rugby Rassie Erasamus has ensured that Pollard will play no part in the match against Ireland, unless additional injuries forced the Leicester halfback’s participation. Quinlan commented on the performance of Libbok, and how missed kicks could prove costly against a winning machine like Ireland.
“Libbok missed a few for the Stormers against Munster in round 17 of the URC and probably cost them in the end. He’s susceptible to missing.
“And of course, if you have a goal kicker who’s nailing 95% or nearly a hundred percent of the kicks, it helps particularly in tight games. It’s not something that I think they’re going to be relying on.”
Despite the inconsistent kicking of Libbok, there is no doubting the fear that South Africa instil in their opponents. Their ice-cool approach saw straight through the All Blacks’ haka in Twickenham last month, which led them to handing New Zealand their heaviest ever defeat in history (35-7). Quinlan recognises the undeniable force that the Springboks will bring to Paris, and is fearful if they hit top gear.
“They are a great side. It is not just about power and strength; they are so intelligent, well tuned in and really well coached.
“They’re brilliant players who are really skilful when they need to be. They’re more than just a physical direct-oriented side, far more than that. That worries me a lot. And if they get their set piece rumbling they’ll make it very difficult for Ireland.
“It’s not as if they are 150, 200 kilos heavier than any other team. They’re just very powerful. They’re aggressive players who have become really good technically. They have a high work rate.”
“I think you have just got to do the simple basics really well. There’s certain types of Test matches where you can get away with losing a couple of line outs or one or two scrums, maybe a couple of turnovers.
“You just sense that with South Africa, because they are the world champions and they’re peaking at the right time and they’ve shown the depth they have in their squads, you can’t do that. They probably put the fear of God in everyone after they beat New Zealand at Twickenham. And probably did the performance in Cardiff against Wales as well. I think that was a really scary performance as well.”
The South African success begins with their coaching staff. The iconic Rassie Erasamus and the mastermind Jacques Nienaber have established a system that looks to have brought the ‘Boks back to top form. Traffic lights, ‘bomb squads’ and 7-1 splits on the bench, South African tactics are the most talked about of any nation, with Quinlan adding his two cents on how he expects the Springboks to approach the collision with the men from the Emerald Isle.
“They certainly know a bit about the mindset of some of the players and know, obviously, Rassie will know a lot about the Munster players. They’ll probably have analysed the Leinster players on many, many occasions and they have certain amounts of data and information and understanding of those players.
“They’ll try and delve into that. But on the flip side they will know of Ireland’s strengths, not just any perceived weaknesses. This Ireland team will not go away easily. South Africa will have to play well to beat them.
“But I think South Africa are the team to beat in the whole tournament. The deck they have and the way they can rotate their players if they want to, if they want to turn it on and go wide and give it out they can.”
Ireland can’t wait to shake off the cobwebs with a slow start. The fight begins at the first kick off the ball, and Quinlan believes that if his countrymen start strong, they can upset the reigning world champions with an aggressive but controlled attack.
“Ireland have got to kind of back themselves and protect the ball and really treasure it. Be brave in your approach. You have got to attack. If you try to contain them, that can be an issue. By contain I mean, if you try to not take any risks and I’ll kick the ball long and keep it up in the air and hope that you win the penalties and get the scoreboard ticking over. Ireland won’t do that.
“I think you’ve got to be fairly brave against them. It doesn’t guarantee you anything, but this Ireland team has the ability to handle the pressure. If you ask anyone in rugby, how do you beat them (South Africa) they’ll tell you, you have to front up first and then, they can try and play rugby. And I think if Ireland can get to that point I think they’ll be in a good place and they can really challenge.
“Ireland will need to go forward and momentum from which you can then build the fantastic attacking structures, which Ireland are so renowned for. But getting that go forward is easier said than done.”
The last meeting between Ireland and South Africa came in the 2022 Autumn Internationals, with Andy Farrell’s men recording a memorable 19-16 win. This arm-wrestle presented a testing taster for the Rugby World Cup encounter, and Quinlan thinks that Ireland can certainly pull confidence from this recent win.
“I think if you go back to that game last November, I think there’s a period of 15-20 minutes early on in the game, South Africa were asking a lot of questions of Ireland physically. They were battering them.
“They were asking questions and Ireland stood to defend well, and they forced some turnovers and they won some penalties. That laid the platform for Ireland to win that game. I wouldn’t say it was comfortable, but Ireland were in a comfortable position. I don’t think we were ever going to lose the game. I was quite pleased the way Ireland stood up physically to South Africa.
“It’s a good template really for what we have to do. When South Africa get it right they are very hard to stop. But this is a big challenge for Ireland. I think. And I love the fact that Andy Farrell always keeps saying he wants to challenge these players.”
Despite Quinlan’s optimism for his side to win tomorrow night, he did address the all-too possible outcome of the Springboks securing the win in Saint-Denis. A loss for Ireland in no way rules them out of winning the Rugby World Cup, but the pressure will be on for Andy Farrell’s men to recover with a win over Scotland, to ensure a safe passage into the quarter-finals. Ireland will take a two-week break after their match against South Africa, which will benefit them to no end after the expected physical encounter.
“It depends on where the game was set up after this weekend. From a physical point of view, obviously it’s good that they go on a two week break. Ireland will have factored that into their preparations and their selections.” Quinlan added.
“I still believe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Ireland lost to South Africa. They’re a mentally strong side. I still think both Ireland and South Africa can win the World Cup. South Africa have been world champions three times so there is a little bit of extra pressure on Ireland.
“Mentally, they’ve got to try and deal with all that stuff. But Andy Farrell is the kind of fellow who’ll say we’ve got a game of rugby on Saturday and whatever happens, we wake up on Sunday and get on with life. I love his attitude and I think his players play like that. So they’re not going to be bogged down by the what ifs and what people say in the media and what everybody talks about.”
“And I believe both these teams are capable of winning the World Cup. Ireland have the ability to play with fast pace and tempo and they pay to play a breakdown. But one of South Africa’s strengths is the breakdown pressure they put in opposition and the way they force turnovers and counter ruck not just in close but in the wider challenge.
“Of course Ireland have to kick. And Johnny Sexton has so much experience and he is a very intelligent rugby player as is (Jamison) Gibson-Park. So, they’re going to try and run the ball, at all costs because that is a recipe for disaster. You have to pick your moments. You’ve got to get territorial as well. They want to try and get into your 22. They want to get in that kind of attack zone and that’s where they really come alive.
“They build massive pressure and either force penalties or score tries. So Ireland have to be tactically good as well and try not to give them entries into your 22 as best you can. An important part of Ireland’s game will be the kicking game as well. You can’t just run the ball out of your own half and expect to run around South Africa. That’s a risky business.
“So territory is going to be a really important part of this game. There’s a lot made of South Africa’s physicality, but Ireland are not a small team either, you know. (Tadhg) Furlong, (Ronan) Kelleher and (Andre) Porter, are big guys and that’s a big front row which is a very physical, aggressive dynamic unit. Someone like Etzebeth has a couple of kilos and a couple of inches and most international second row forwards. But James Ryan and Tadhg Beirne are very athletic players as well. They’re probably more mobile, and more ball players.
“Ireland have a really good back row as well. The seven-one split scenario probably concerns people and Irish people, it’s just that impact. And I think that’s where South Africa definitely have an advantage over most teams, is the way that they can spring from their bench with such quality.”
The heavily discussed South African 7-1 split has again reared it’s head, with the ‘Boks preparing a replacements bench that is lop-sided in favour of the forwards. South Africa’s bench reads like this;
16. Deon Fourie (hooker), 17. Ox Nche, 18. Trevor Nyakane (both props), 19. Jean Kleyn, 20. RG Snyman (both locks), 21. Marco van Staden, 22. Kwagga Smith (both back row) 23. Cobus Reinach (scrum half).
Quinlan was delighted to see that Ireland did not replicate their opponents, and instead focussed on their own gameplan to win the match. South Africa will also be without their world-class hooker Malcolm Marx, following a recent injury to the front rower. Quinlan added his thoughts on how significant this injury will be for the already short-staffed ‘Boks.
“Most teams would prefer to have some utility players on the bench to cover a number of positions. Not South Africa and it’s paid off before and could pay off again. It’s effectively two extra forwards coming. It may not work.
“It looks like we are going to go with a 5-3 split and I admire us for that. I think we’re not reacting to them. South Africa like to name their side early in a Test week and do try and lay down a marker and say,’ Well, here’s what’s coming, let’s see if you can deal with it.’ They’re very reactive of turnovers. That’s where they come alive.
“Damien de Allende is one of the best centres if not the best 12 in the world. So, they have wonderful players right across their team.”
“And don’t forget South Africa have lost Malcolm Marx. That’s a big loss. Are they vulnerable at hooker, yes of course.”
After a handful of landslide victories saw Ireland and South Africa dismantle Romania, and New Zealand and France both trounced Namibia, this match is one of the hardest to call from the entire tournament. Quinlan presented his best judgement, yet understands that the match is truly one that could go either way tomorrow evening.
“One part of me is confident that Ireland can win this game. And I think they, of course they can. They are good enough. They probably need to get a fair bit right. And they need to not give South Africa big gain lines and they need to be really good in the air for their set piece.
“South Africa needs to be really wary and mindful of this is a very good Irish side. They’re capable of scoring lots of points and they’re actually capable of taking punishment as well and bouncing back. I think they can dust themselves off pretty quickly. “However, I will say South Africa by six (points). I just think they can nullify Ireland and stop them playing. That might not be the worst thing for Ireland in terms for the rest of the tournament. It will be really tight and I’ve said the Boks by about six. But I’ll be absolutely not surprised if Ireland win this game.”