Tactics and gameplans are important, but execution and composure will be key when Boks and Ireland clash
The most anticipated Pool-phase game of Rugby World Cup 2023 has arrived and the outcome between the Springboks and Ireland is likely to be decided between the ears as much as in the heart.
Forget seven-one and five-three for a second, which are important. The Springboks’ clash against Ireland, the defining game of the Rugby World Cup 2023 Pool phase, will come down to execution and focus.
The Springbok bench loaded with forwards and Ireland’s more traditional bench split between backs and forwards, will only bring rewards if composure and clarity rule the day.
The best tactics in the world, the most effective gameplan imaginable and the smartest team selections are only as good as execution on the field. Everything is great in theory, but the reality is when plans start going awry.
The build-up to the clash at Stade de France on Saturday night has rightly been dominated by team news, for obvious reasons.
The Boks did something unprecedented and named seven forwards on the bench, sending an intimidating message to Andy Farrell’s men. Ireland responded by going their traditional route of five forwards and three backs, sending back a message that they would not be intimidated.
There has been outcry over the Boks’ selection, but coach Jacques Nienaber was unrepentant.
“I think if there is innovation in any sport it gets a reaction, positive or negative. This is obviously unique, it is the first time a team has named seven forwards and one back on the bench, so that is why I would say it’s innovation,” Nienaber said.
“That will get a reaction. In terms of player safety, I don’t get that. I know nothing stops anyone else doing it and it will be a sad day, I think, if you’re innovative in the laws of the game and then they would change that.
“It’s not against the laws of the game and I don’t think it has any bearing on player safety at all.”
Execution over tactics
Tactics might win this game, but the outcome is more than likely to be decided by execution. Which team can impose themselves on the other for longer.
Who will make the most of their chances? Who will score points when they’re on offer? When the world’s top two teams clash, the margins are slim and mistakes magnified.
Ireland have won six of the past 10 clashes between the sides but they have only met once in the Jacques Nienaber/Rassie Erasmus era, and that was last November in Dublin. Ireland won 19-16 after weathering early Bok pressure.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023
Ireland scored for the majority of their visits to the Bok 22-metre area, the Boks by contract only took 40% of their chances inside the red zone. That largesse cost them the game and will again, if the numbers are similar.
For this game, Nienaber has selected a team capable of building a foundation on which to build pressure. But that pressure needs to be converted to points. That means making the final pass stick, being patient through one more phase of attack, making a cool decision under pressure, or landing a crucial penalty.
Naturally, the same applies to Ireland, who have to do all those things too, which is what makes this a fascinating match-up.
The other bit of psychology is that the outcome of the match is not necessarily tournament-ending. It’s not quite a knockout match yet, so that could create a little more freedom for both sides; just a little more confidence to make a risky play, knowing that a mistake is not guaranteed to end participation in the tournament.
Will that make Ireland bolder on attack? Johnny Sexton and his men know what’s coming. The Boks’ blitz defence will try to shut them down from the outside in, which creates space in other areas.
They could kick over the top of the rush, where Bok sweepers Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe will have their hands full. But that’s part of the reason those two are the preferred wings – they are fast and agile.
Ireland could also attempt to push passes past the rush, which if successful, will leave the Boks exposed out wide. But that comes with obvious risk because the chance for an intercept is high.
The beauty of both these sides is that they are supremely structured, but also wonderfully balanced.
High cross-field kicks are another option for Sexton to put pressure on the small Bok wings, especially as Ireland like to leave flank Peter O’Mahony on the tramlines for precisely that reason.
The Boks will have plotted a way to combat that tactic and as they have proven they are lethal on turnover, so Ireland will have to think carefully about kicking possession away.
Similarly, the Boks need to gain an edge in the scrums and lineouts – areas where Ireland enjoyed parity in Dublin – to begin to impose their own gameplan.
In contact, the Boks will obviously use centre Damien de Allende and No 8 Jasper Wiese to obtain gainline momentum. But from there Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse, who will spend some time at first receiver, will make decisions about the direction of play.
The beauty of both these sides is that they are supremely structured, but also wonderfully balanced. In the Bok set-up, individuals are empowered to make calls based on the situation unfolding in front of them.
That takes confidence and whichever side can erode more of that confidence from the other, should win the day. DM
15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (captain), 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 1 Andrew Porter
Substitutes: 16 Dan Sheehan, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Ryan Baird, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Jack Crowley, 23 Robbie Henshaw
15 Damian Willemse, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff. Reserves: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Jean Kleyn, 20 RG Snyman, 21 Marco van Staden, 22 Kwagga Smith, 23 Cobus Reinach.
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Kick-off: 9pm (23 September)
Venue: Stade de France, Saint Denis