Ireland v South Africa: The Inside Track on the huge match at the Aviva in Dublin
Ireland v South Africa: Autumn International Aviva Stadium (5.30pm today)
Jonathan Bradley runs his eye over all the key battles and showdowns in this evening's showdown in Dublin.
Jonathan Sexton v Handre Pollard
Given his importance to the side, Ireland fans will have been forgiven a collective gasp when news emerged that out-half Jonathan Sexton had been removed at half-time of Racing Metro’s Top 14 loss to Oyonnax with what was described as a tweak, but team management have since insisted that it was a planned substitution.
Sexton, not long recovered from a broken jaw, will need to exert consummate control over proceedings this evening if Joe Schmidt’s men are to have a chance of victory.
While Ireland already possess a world class operator at fly-half, South Africa name the coming man of the position, Handre Pollard, in their 10 jersey.
Just 20 years of age, the Bulls representative replaced the more pedestrian Morne Steyn after last summer’s visit of Wales and has not looked back.
The IRB Junior Player of the Year will be expected to take charge of the backline for years to come.
Mike Ross v Tendai Mtawarira
As Ireland’s injury problems mounted as November grew closer, there was a rare piece of good news this week when tighthead prop Mike Ross returned to training.
Having been out with a groin injury since Leinster’s defeat to Munster, the Corkman will need to hit the ground running. The only man named in all 10 of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland XVs, he
is the sole member of the first choice front row fit to play in the absence of both Cian Healy and Ulster’s Rory Best.
Ireland’s scrum was a real strength during the Six Nations but with injuries, and against a formidable unit, Ross will have a tough task to maintain its dominance today.
Tendai Mtawarira is one of the most noted props of his generation. ‘The Beast’ is a strong ball carrier won’t give an inch.
Paul O’Connell v Victor Matfield
The two totemic locks have been full of mutual admiration for each other in the build-up to this game but the friendliness will not last once they cross the white line at 5.30pm.
Paul O’Connell will win his 95th Ireland cap when he leads the side out and he will surely relish another head-to-head with the recently returned Victor Matfiled.
Both the Springboks’ most capped and oldest ever player, the 37-year-old reversed his decision to retire at the start of 2014 and he has not looked at all off the pace since coming back.
Two self-confessed students of the line-out, the pair’s battle in the air will be fascinating to watch and integral to the game’s outcome.
While O’Connell’s trick of picking up some Afrikaans is unlikely to fool the South Africans for a second time, he has no doubt put in hours of work in an attempt to decode their calls.
With Matfield likely having done similar, both sides will know that their set-piece will be under intense pressure throughout.
The main threats
With Heyneke Meyer able to name an unchanged line-up from the side that beat New Zealand in September, the Springboks come into today’s game as a battle-hardened unit that has taken to the field eight times since Ireland last played a Test.
Ulster fans will need no reminding of the talents of Toulon’s Bryan Habana after seeing him in the Champions Cup while on the opposite wing Cornal Hendricks has impressed since making his debut last summer.
The half-backs, Handre Pollard and Francois Hougaard, are in a rich vein of form, fullback Willie Le Roux provides a real X-factor and Jan Serfontein seems to have finally ended the debate over Jean De Villiers centre partner.
No South Africa side will ever have a less than fearsome pack and the likes of the Du Plessis brothers, Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen are sure to make a considerable impact.
Historically criticised for playing a 10-man game, recent Tests have seen the South Africans, largely thanks to out-half Handre Pollard, credited with utilising a more expansive style and their victory over New Zealand in the final round of the Rugby Championship saw Heyneke Meyer’s side attack from inside their own ‘22’ with much success.
Of course, they have not abandoned their traditional strengths — with the forwards at their disposal to do so would be foolish — and the idea that they have suddenly started playing Barbarians-style rugby remains some way off the mark.
Having felt that the tour to Argentina sapped some of their momentum, Ireland will be looking to regain the intensity that carried them to the title last March.
The defence, led by soon-to-be Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss, will need to be at its best while it will be interesting to see if Ireland’s set-piece remains potent.
Stat attack: Ireland have won just four of 21 Tests against South Africa since their first meeting back in 1906. South Africa have won 16 and the sides drew in 1970. The last victory for Ireland came at Croke Park in 2009 when the home side won by 15 points to 10 at GAA headquarters.
A bit of previous
Ireland’s last six results:
Argentina 17 Ireland 23
Argentina 17 Ireland 29
France 20 Ireland 22
Ireland 46 Italy 7
England 13 Ireland 10
Ireland 26 Wales 3
South Africa’s last six results:
South Africa 27 New Zealand 25
South Africa 28 Australia 10
New Zealand 14 South Africa 10
Australia 24 South Africa 23
Argentina 31 South Africa 33
South Africa 13 Argentina 6