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Ireland v South Africa: All set for the ultimate test in Dublin

But Ireland cannot afford a weak link

By George Hook

The term 'horses for courses' doesn't apply if half the stable is off at the knackers yard. Joe Schmidt's Ireland 15 to play South Africa is more or less as expected, given the amount of players unavailable for selection. But make no mistake, this is an Ireland team picked through necessity, not by design.

And if Ireland's list of walking wounded isn't long enough, it's the quality and not the quantity of the missing players that worries me. Sean O'Brien, Cian Healy, Rory Best, Martin Moore...

The grunt and depth of the Irish engine room is unavailable and what remain is vulnerable to injury, with thread bare back up to replace them.

Were Mike Ross to suffer a recurrence of his recent ills, Schmidt would be well within his rights to plead for uncontested scrums.

Ireland have no sufficient reinforcements if Ross goes down injured.

Even in his current state, it is highly unlikely the Leinster tight head will last 60 minutes against the physical freak that is the Beast Mtwarira. What then?

Where Schmidt's hand has been depleted through injury, his Springbok counterpart Heyneke Meyer has been able to name the same starting 15 that accounted for the All Blacks last month.

Meyer also has injury absentees to contend with, including Ulster scrum half Ruan Pienaar, but the fact that he can select a side capable of toppling the world champions for a second successive test will be satisfactory compensation to his casualty woes.

The current crop of Springboks is a very different animal from the South African sides of the past.

The great tradition of dominating through power alone, where giant specimens smash their way to victory in gladiatorial combat, has been craftily shifted to one side under Meyer and his coaching team.

Make no mistake, the South Africa power game is still very much in effect, but the current head coach has added subtlety, ingenuity and a slick craftsmanship to an already impressive machine.

The result is a complete test for whatever opposition stands in their way.

This evening, Ireland cannot afford a weak link in the chain.

Maximum efficiency in all departments will be needed if victory is to be secured, but even an optimum return from the squad selected may not be enough.

There is simply no room for error. Kick poorly and South Africa will counter attack at bristling speed through Bryan Habana, Willie Le Roux and Cornal Hendricks.

Fail to front up at scrum or line out and the visitors will pounce with devastating effect. Missed tackles will almost certainly lead to tries and any lapses in concentration levels will be ruthlessly punished.

There are few more difficult Test matches to try out a new centre combination and one has to question Schmidt's selection decision here.

Robbie Henshaw has played just one match at 12 in his entire professional career and that came only two weeks ago when Connacht were hammered by Exeter in the Challenge Cup.

Centre partnerships succeed on a foundation of trust, instinct and repetition. On each of these fundamentals, Ireland comes up short. Henshaw deserves his chance on merit, but his selection at 13, outside of Gordon D'Arcy or Ian Madigan, would have provided a steadier platform for just his second international cap.

This evening, the Connacht star will be relying on Jared Payne, a man he has never played with, playing out of position, against one of the most experienced centres in world rugby.

Jean de Villiers will undoubtedly highlight the Irish midfield as a target to be hit.

In Handrè Pollard and Hendricks, South Africa have two explosive weapons at fly half and full back.

The 20-year-old Pollard struts about the pitch like a veteran with years of experience.

His willingness to test out opposition defences is in contrast to the old traditions of kicking Springbok fly halves and his two tries against New Zealand mark him out as a massive threat.

Hendricks runs from deep with little thought to the merits of his decisions. He has pace, a deft boot and a wonderful ability to read the game.

Jonny Sexton's kicking accuracy will be vital in limiting the Boks counter attacking threat.

Possession will go a long way towards deciding the outcome and Ireland must adapt to Romain Poite's whistle. As the Champions Cup has shown on a number of occasions recently, French officials tend to favour the attacking team at the breakdown, so discipline from the Irish back row will be crucial.

The poaching skills of Peter O'Mahony and Chris Henry are well documented, but if they cannot adapt to the referee's interpretation at the breakdown, their efforts will be in vain.

The form of the Irish provinces this season offers little support when searching for omens of a home win. Munster's five-game winning streak offers little momentum to an Irish team with just four Munster players in the starting XV.

In contrast, South Africa come here on the back of a sensational victory over New Zealand and with a two-week training camp behind them.

Ireland's cause, while not impossible, looks extremely bleak.

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