Cautious Joe Schmidt is right to be wary of South African 'rookies'
Ireland arrived in South Africa yesterday knowing that, despite the changing face of the opposition, they meet one of the most daunting challenges in rugby over the next three weeks.
Since a third-place finish at the World Cup in October, and with the issue of a quota system looming ever larger in the background, the sport's second superpower have replaced head coach Heyneke Meyer with Allister Coetzee while their panel now boasts 775 fewer caps than when travelling to England last autumn.
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar made himself unavailable for his native country while former captain Jean de Villiers has retired and Bryan Habana is focussing on sevens ahead of the Olympics.
Fourie du Preez is gone, so too Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger, while there is no place for the Du Plessis brothers.
But despite the less than familiar nature of the SA panel to those not spending their weekends watching Super Rugby, Ireland's Joe Schmidt expects one of the toughest challenges of his tenure when the series begins in Cape Town on Saturday.
While much has been made of the Springboks' relative inexperience in comparison to former editions - with no Pienaar or Du Preez their three-strong scrum-half contingent has just two caps between them - the Ireland coach sees the making of a new team among the nine uncapped players. "I know they've talked a little bit about their nine, and having three new nines, but Nic Groom reminds me a little bit of Neil de Kock, who plays with Saracens," he said in the first of his media briefings last week. He is just so efficient, and has a great passing game.
"Faf de Klerk is a weapon around the fringes and really dangerous and Rudy Paige was with them at the World Cup and has a fair bit of experience in that Springbok environment and is a leader for the Blue Bulls.
"I think anywhere they're inexperienced, they've got great talent and anywhere they're experienced, they've got great talent. That's part of the excitement and the challenge."
Never one to shy away from discussing the opposition at length, he continued: "They're a little bit harder to read.
"I think some of the media comment is that they are going to be a little bit more expansive. I thought Heyneke Meyer had them mixing their game up a fair bit anyway, so I don't expect anything massively different.
"There are a number of the same personnel there. We know they're going to be incredibly strong in the midfield. Again, I'm not sure who they are going to pick because they are spoiled for choice really; is it Jan Serfontein, or is it Jesse Kriel or Damian de Allende?
"They've all been outstanding but then this new kid on the block [Lionel] Mapoe shows up and he has been devastating for the Lions.
"They've got fantastic options through there and they've always got options out wide that are going to threaten, and certainly [Willie] le Roux is always a threat, JP Pietersen has that experience and [Lwazi] Mvovo has lightning gas.
"There are some guys who missed out up front that are incredibly good players; a guy like Vincent Koch, for example, who plays for The Stormers. It is just so competitive to get into their squad so whatever they do come up with and what they're going to deliver, it's going to be very hard to break down."
By the end of the tour, players who participated in the pre-World Cup camps last summer and proceeded through the season without respite - Rory Best and Andrew Trimble included - will have been on the go for a full year but the potential to make history surely remains tantalising.
Schmidt recalls the sight of Sean Fitzpatrick dropping to his knees in elation when New Zealand won their first ever series on South African soil some 20 years ago to highlight how far his side will need to go in order to emulate the feat this month.
A 3-0 defeat, like that suffered at the hands of the All Blacks four years ago at the same stage of the World Cup cycle, and the players will no doubt feel every day of their longest season as they trudge home.
Mastermind an All Blacks of '96 type victory of their own, however, and the trip will be one for the ages.