belfasttelegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Ireland can Spring a surprise on Boks, says Dion

He’ll be getting the braai going nice and early and preparing the meat. Nothing special, you understand; just an ordinary barbeque South African style.

Mind you, the last time I went to Dion O’Cuinneagain’s elegant Cape Town home, tucked away under the mountain not far from Newlands rugby ground, the braai was big enough to double up as a funeral pyre and half a herd of animals must have been led in to provide the feast.

Dion O’Cuinneagain, these days a director at the Sports Science orthopaedic clinic, loves life in the sunny, warm Cape. But wild horses wouldn’t drag him away from the television screen tomorrow afternoon as Ireland take on South Africa at Croke Park.

As a man who represented both countries as a fiercely committed, hard driving, industrious No 8 or flanker, O’Cuinneagain remains in love with the game.

Captain of Ireland at the 1999 Rugby World Cup and the winner of 19 caps for this country, he played alongside the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, John Hayes and David Wallace. He knows the players and respects them. But likewise, Cape Town born O’Cuinneagain, who is now 37, has a deep respect for the world champion Springboks.

Some surprise then, you might think, that O’Cuinneagain is adamant on one thing ahead of this weekend’s meeting of the world champions and the Six Nations Grand Slam champions. “To me, the Springboks look a little bit vulnerable, I think Ireland can take them. This may be Ireland’s best chance to beat them in some years.”

For that to happen, he asserts, certain things have to occur. Ireland’s key men have to produce outstanding individual and collective performances. He nominates Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and Paul O’Connell as those key men.

“When Brian plays well, the whole team does likewise. Rob Kearney must be solid under the high ball because South Africa will kick downfield a lot, they always do. Kearney can also do some damage in midfield. Ferris has to carry the ball very well. He has made a huge impact and has come on very well. But if you want to beat South Africa you must match their physicality. He can do that.

“Likewise Jamie Heaslip who I think has been very impressive recently. He had an excellent Lions tour and, like Ferris, must carry the ball up strongly against the South Africans.”

And the final key component in the Irish master plan? Paul O’Connell, a player whom O’Cuinneagain says, has never really been that successful against Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha. “There is definitely unfinished business for O’Connell in this match. I went to Pretoria for the Second Test against the Lions back in June and you could see O’Connell was gutted afterwards.

“Maybe the cares of captaincy were too much but now, without that added responsibility, he can go out and have a big game. He has never seemed to have his best games against Matfield and Botha, he always seems quieter in those matches. But this is his chance.

“If Ireland get good scrum ball, they can go forward. And unless the Springboks move John Smit back to hooker from tight head, Ireland should be able to do that. Ireland are attacking so well off set pieces at the moment they can cause South Africa problems, especially as they won’t have Jean de Villiers, their communicator and organiser behind the scrum.

“South Africa on this tour don’t seem to have the same swagger and air of confidence about them on the field. Off it they still talk a good game but their body language has not been where they would want it to be.

“Maybe it is down to mental fatigue more than physical. In their situation, you are almost counting the days and hours to go home. Nevertheless, I am pretty sure they will be up for it and any thoughts like that will be pushed to the side.”

O’Cuinneagain, who played for Ballymena, Ulster and, briefly, Munster, won his Test caps between 1998 and 2000. A product of the renowned Rondebosch Boys School and Stellenbosch University in the Cape, he also represented Western Province in his playing days.

With Ireland, he knew an era graced by the likes of Keith Wood, Mick Galwey and Paddy Johns. How does he remember those times?

“With great happiness,” he says, cheerfully. “I had a fantastic time and made some great friends. Paul Wallace came out and stayed with me during the Lions tour.

“The three best games I ever played for Ireland were all against South Africa. In Bloemfontein, against a ‘Boks side coached by Nick Mallett and led by Gary Teichmann, we were in with a real chance of a big upset but eventually they ran away with it. Pretoria wasn’t our day, they beat us 33-0 and it was a really fiery game. It was the one when Paddy Johns completely lost control. He was leading from the front but there were many off the ball incidents. Both sides provoked each other, we climbed into one another and and I think it was the hardest game I ever played.”

Yet there was still time for some of the humour that was a legacy from the amateur era. O’Cuinneagain, fluent of course in Afrikaans and English, was packing down on the back of the Irish scrum as Springbok forward Andre Venter let rip a stream of invective in his native Afrikaans about the dubious birthright of most of his opponents that day.

“Guys like Andre were used to swearing in Afrikaans about the opposition. But I think he’d forgotten I was there. After one particular volley of abuse, I replied in kind — in Afrikaans.”

Several of Venter’s mates saw the funny side of it. But the extreme and harsh physicality South Africans always bring to a game of rugby continued apace. It will be just the same at Croke Park tomorrow. Ireland know that and Dion O’Cuinneagain knows it, too.

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