We’ve never been here before. Thanks to a quirk of the draw and recent inconsistencies from the New Zealand All Blacks, we’ve got the top two ranked teams in the world squaring off before the knockouts. Whatever your views are on the lopsided nature of this World Cup, this is something to celebrate.
Even after absorbing the flood of hot takes on social media, the countless minutes committed to this clash on podcasts and vlogs, and enough words online and in print to fill an encyclopaedia, it’s still almost impossible to call it. According to experts and amateurs alike, Jacques Nienaber and Andy Farrell might as well meet in a Parisian cave à vins and flip a coin. That’s how close it is.
We’re not going to do that here. Instead we’re going to lean into the folly of picking a winner. Crack your knuckles and get ready to send abusive replies after the match because here are five reasons why the Springboks will surely beat Ireland on Saturday night.
As is the case for almost every rugby match at any level, the battle at the breakdown will go a long way in determining the outcome. And these are two of the best, if not the two best in the world in that department.
South Africa’s size is often overplayed but it’s their accuracy at the ruck and around the fringe that needs to be highlighted. To steal a line from the great Irish UFC champion, Connor McGregor, precision beats power and timing beats speed. As was best demonstrated in their demolition of the All Blacks in Twickenham, the Springboks at their best are relentless in securing quick ball and stifling the opposition’s attack.
Much of that has to do with a rejuvenated Pieter-Steph du Toit who is back to his 2019 form that saw him recognised as World Rugby’s player of the year. Of course, it’s not just that blonde tackling machine but the rest of a frenetic pack that targets the point of contact in pairs and almost always seems to have a man ready to clean out.
Ireland were uncharacteristically vulnerable on the ground against Tonga, coughing up 14 turnovers across the match. If a disjointed side like Tonga can disrupt so much of Ireland’s ball, what will the efficiently drilled South Africans do?
Ireland’s strength lies in the team’s ability to stitch together consistent and probing phases. It’s a proven way of disrupting South Africa’s game as it moves their big pack around and asks questions of a backline that will look to rush at every opportunity. If Sexton isn’t getting enough front ball at pace, and if the South African defence has time to set, breaking them down could prove to be an insurmountable challenge.
Speaking of rush defences, the South Africans have the most fearsome blitz in the game. The last time the teams met in the Autumn of 2022, the Springboks’ rush, led by Jesse Kriel, who is expected to start at 13 on Saturday, disrupted Ireland’s rhythm. That 19-16 win for Ireland could have gone either way. Sexton was harried and knocked off his groove. Only once did he get around the rush with a trademark wraparound but the supporting defence in the tram quickly snuffed out the threat.
Ireland’s interplay positions them as one of the few teams who can adequately deal with the Springboks’ rush. With a pack of forwards who can pass back against the grain as well as run angles off the shoulder, Ireland won’t shy away from the contact. In fact, inviting the Springboks on might create those half-gaps they need. That’s hardly a given. In fact, on the law of averages, it is also unlikely.
South African rugby has long been categorised as one-dimensional, defensive and, let’s be frank, pretty boring. High kicks and meaty mauls. Short passes to unthinking carriers. It’s a simple formula, and three World Cups would suggest that it works.
Ignoring the fact that this antiquated view has been overly reductive for some time, it is completely false now. The Springboks have one of the most exciting backlines in the game. When last, if ever, could we say that about them? Manie Libbok is painting pictures that were previously only seen in foreign galleries and he has artists of equal dash and daring outside him.
Ireland must now contend with South Africa’s traditional blunt force instruments with the extra threat of surgically sharp weapons out wide and through the midfield. South Africa’s points of difference won’t come as a surprise to Farrell, but, to pinch another famous quote from a man who made a living knocking people out, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. South Africa will rain down blows on the Irish from every conceivable angle.
When was the last time Ireland played a side who could realistically beat them? Not a team with an outside chance of causing an upset. Another world class outfit with a genuine hope of lifting the World Cup.
That was 225 days ago when they secured a four-try, 32-19 win over France in Dublin. In that time South Africa have played the All Blacks twice. And, if we include the sides chasing the tails of the top four teams, South Africa still look like the team with the more testing run-in to this showdown with a tricky trip to Argentina as well as a narrow win against the Pumas on home soil. What’s more, they’ve already played Scotland in this pool of death.
In a game of fine margins, and this will certainly be a game of the finest of margins, any fractional advantage could be decisive. South Africa’s better conditioning, and the recent lived-experience of bettering a side with the potential to better them, might sway it their way.
World Cup aura
Sometimes there isn’t a reason that one team beats another. At least, no reason that can be explained with analysis or an algorithm. Sometimes it comes down to intangible variables like auras and vibes. Some teams have it, others don’t. And when it comes to World Cups, there is a chasm in this regard between these two otherwise inseparable squads.
It’s not just their records – three tournament wins on one side, eight quarter final losses, along with a pool stage exit, on the other. South African players and their fans expect to go deep in the competition. Irish players and fans hope that they do. See the difference?
Besides the All Blacks, the Springboks are the only team that would consider anything other than a victory come the end of the road a failure. And when things get sticky with only minutes left on the clock, or matches coalesce into hard fought arm wrestles, belief, as much as skill and training, is often the difference. Whatever transpires on Saturday, only one team can look at history and use it as a platform for more success.2023-09-20T08:14:23Z dg43tfdfdgfd