As Ireland prepares to take on the Springboks this weekend, it feels somehow apt that I watched the film, ‘Invictus’ for the first time at the weekend.
The narrative plots the progress of the South African team which managed, against the odds and a Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks side, to lift the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
While the plot has clearly been given the Hollywood treatment, you are left in no doubt about what the Springbok team means to South Africa. Support borders on the fanatical and rugby somehow goes beyond the simple description of being a national sport.
Two direct consequences of this are an enormously high level of expectation and the associated pressure that comes with this. Yet, somehow this always seems to sit fairly comfortably on the players’ shoulders. Maybe the main reason for this is that the vast majority of South African rugby players that I have met seem to have had an incredibly strong sense of conviction and self-belief.
In Invictus, this belief in oneself and also in the concept of representing an uncommonly united South Africa drove the Springboks on with a single-minded determination that ultimately proved successful. Self-belief has often been the key aspect lacking in Irish rugby.
However, I believe that, of his many achievements, Declan Kidney’s greatest is that he has challenged this status quo. Kidney has championed the concept that having the tag of favourites should not burden you down, that you should take pride in this and allow it to motivate and invigorate rather than constrain and limit.
Munster’s many highlights in the Heineken Cup under the Corkman owe as much to the players’ almost apocalyptic refusal to submit as to rugby ability and skill.
The only team that I have heard of who had that same sheer force of will was the unbeaten Ulster team of the 1980’s and it is a shame that the likes of Anderson, McCoy, Matthews, Carr, Irwin, Ringland and Crossan never got a chance to pit themselves against the sort of opposition that the Heineken Cup throws up.
There is no inferiority complex in Munster. Leinster have collectively assumed that same attitude that their talisman Brian O’Driscoll oozes on the rugby pitch. Ulster, disappointingly, are nowhere near the mark.
In looking ahead to Saturday’s international, self-belief may well be the key determinant.
Allowing Schalk Burger and Juan De Jongh to play in the Currie Cup Final has cost coach Peter de Villiers dearly. This brings the number of South African players who are missing this tour to 13. I am less worried about Ireland’s woes with the missing O’Connell, Flannery and O’Leary — Munster have managed to persevere and Ireland should as well.
One thing you can be sure of when you play South Africa is the unremitting physicality of their play. Despite the long injury list, the roll call in their forward pack remains daunting — the mention of Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith, Pierre Spies and Bismarck du Plessis all serve as sharp reminders of the attrition that awaits the Irish players.
Nonetheless, while they have had no real gametime together, the Irish players have been in decent form.
Whether Brian O’Driscoll makes it back from injury in time or not, Ireland have an advantage in the backs — the big question is will they will receive enough quality and quick ball.
Therefore, the biggest challenge is whether Ireland’s forwards can match the Springbok intensity and physicality, fight fire with fire and summon up the spirit of the occasion at the new Aviva Stadium.
It may not have the edge of a World Cup Final, but beating one of the Southern Hemisphere heavyweights is always an achievement.
Ireland have now won the last three meetings and this in itself will provide sufficient motivation for the Boks. Despite their injuries and the fact that the tour comes at the end of a long hard season, Ireland meet South Africa at the start of their tour when they are at their freshest.
Expect some huge hits and a tight game.
But if Ireland are in the match at the 60 minute mark, belief and the Lansdowne roar will steer them through.