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Best calls on Irish starlets to seize their big chance

By Jonathan Bradley

When Ireland last toured South Africa all the way back in 2004, current skipper Rory Best was still months away from making his Ulster debut.

Back then, the idea that, some 12 years on, he'd be leading out the side in Newlands and winning his 95th cap today would have seemed somewhat fanciful but he understands just how valuable all that experience will be over the next three weekends.

With Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien injured - and after the retirements of Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll in recent seasons - many of the core leaders from Best's time in green will be absent as Ireland aim for a first victory on South African soil.

Indeed, while Jamie Heaslip's cap total is also in the 90s, Andrew Trimble is the only other player in the 23 entering today's contest with more than 60 and boss Joe Schmidt has had to put his faith in some inexperienced figures.

Best, however, is keen to see what the next generation can do in the most testing of settings.

"It's massive for these guys," he said yesterday after his captain's run. "A lot of them have been in and around the squad and they wanted a chance but when certain key players are established, and playing well, it doesn't allow them the opportunity.

"Some of these guys now have the opportunity and whenever you're a young kid, it's been a while since I was a young kid playing, but all you want is an opportunity and then it's yours.

"At least you then dictate what you do with it. I think, for me, as captain of these guys, it's very exciting to see what this young talent can deliver."

The Springboks themselves have undergone serious upheaval in recent months - today will represent new head coach Allister Coetzee's first game in charge - and with lightning pace amongst some of their backs, there has been talk of a more expansive game than under previous supremo Heyneke Meyer.

However, with individual battles like Iain Henderson versus Eben Etzebeth, CJ Stander taking on Francois Louw, Heaslip going head to head with Duane Vermeulen and Best's own tussle with opposite number Adriaan Strauss, the forward exchanges will still prove fascinating to watch.

The captain is expecting them to prove crucial.

"Certainly with South Africa, they have traditionally had and still do have a really strong set-piece, the line-out and scrum, it's definitely an area that if we're going to compete that we have to be somewhere near our best because we know that they are going to bring a different challenge than we faced during the Six Nations and in our own club competitions," he said.

"But I suppose the challenge to that is it's Test rugby, so you want to be challenged against the best. South Africa are one of the best in the world and we're going to be tested.

"We've prepared well all week but we know that we have to step it up a gear. In terms of the mental side of things, we've had the beauty, I suppose, of being out of the European Cup so we have had a bit of a freshen up between the Six Nations and now.

"It has been a long season but that freshen up with a few weekends off towards the tail end of the season has really helped guys.

"With missing a few players and getting new guys in, they give a burst of enthusiasm anyway, so it's a great squad to be around at the minute but, ultimately, I suppose the mood next week will be reflected on what happens (this) evening."

Best knows if that enthusiasm is to be maintained going into the tour's daunting second week, only a strong performance today will do.

South Africa


International Test:

Newlands, Today, 3.00 pm

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