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RWC 2023

South Africa versus Ireland – clash of the rugby warrior elite

South Africa versus Ireland – clash of the rugby warrior elite
The South African and Scottish teams try to form a scrum during their 2023 Rugby World Cup first-round match at Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, France, on 10 September. (Photo: Sylvie Failletaz / RuS.Media / Getty Images)

Accuracy and composure from the players and the box will determine the outcome.

One of the most enduring images of South Africa’s World Cup trophy tour in 2019 is that of four Springbok coaches singing Stand Up and Fight – the anthem of Irish club Munster – on the top of the team bus. 

Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus was balancing a beer on his knee while defence coach Jacques Nienaber clutched the Webb Ellis Cup. Joined by assistant coaches Felix Jones and Aled Walters, they sang about battle, perseverance and victory.

These four coaches harnessed and celebrated the warrior mentality when they were stationed at Munster two years earlier, and so it came as no surprise to see or hear them singing about triumph over adversity in the aftermath of the Boks’ success in Japan.

Erasmus and Nienaber have worked together for more than 20 years, and have been at the helm of various teams with very different playing philosophies. Their drive to instil a warrior mentality among the players, however, has been a constant – at the Cheetahs, Stormers, Munster and especially at the Boks.

Battle of wills

The Pool B clash between Ireland and South Africa in Paris on Saturday has been billed as a clash of styles, but in a sense there are similarities between the two sets of players in that they both play with an edge and a desperation that belies their lofty world rankings (No 1 and 2).

Erasmus and Nienaber have developed a group of warriors that will fight to the death of a contest. As the Munster anthem suggests, Ireland’s players will fight “till they hear the bell”. This much was evident when Munster – with prominent Test players such as Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne in tow – edged the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship (URC) final earlier this year.

The stage is set for one of the most fascinating contests of the 2023 World Cup tournament. So much has been said and written over the past few months about the head-to-head battles that will shape the outcome. Now that the game has arrived, the question is not one of physicality but of accuracy and composure, on the field of play as well as in the coaching box.

We know that the Boks have the power to win the scrums, the athleticism to edge the line-outs, and the tenacity to disrupt Ireland’s metronomic breakdown. The 7-1 split between forwards and backs suggests that they have everything they need to boss these battles from minute one to 80.

We know that the backs have the means to penetrate Ireland’s defence, and the means to use their own defence as a form of attack. In Manie Libbok, the Boks have a proven goal-kicker who has won big games and tournaments for his club at URC level.

What remains to be seen is whether the Boks can maintain their composure and accuracy for the duration of the game – in front of goal and in other areas of the field.

What we’ve learnt about Ireland over a 15-game winning streak is that they have the will to stay in the fight, as well as the ability to land a knockout blow when an opponent drops their guard, even for a second.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023

Dublin loss highlighted Bok failings

The Boks found that out the hard way in Dublin last year. In the aftermath of that 19-16 defeat, the blame was laid at the goal-kickers’ door because Damian Willemse and Cheslin Kolbe combined for three misses and spurned a total of seven points.

Though those misses proved costly in a tight finish, the team’s collective failings in the opposition 22 – they scored points on just four of their 10 visits – contributed to an underwhelming overall performance.

The manner in which Ireland disrupted the Bok scrum and line-out in that fixture also influenced the result. When the hosts received chances to score, they made them count – picking up points on four of their six visits to the South African 22.

On the day, Ireland were smarter and sharper over the course of the game, and nothing short of ruthless in the big moments.

Tadhg Beirne of Ireland breaks through on his way to scoring a try during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Ireland and Tonga at Stade de la Beaujoire on 16 September 2023 in Nantes, France. (Photo: Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

When to deploy the bomb squad

Saturday’s game in Paris marks an opportunity for redemption. The Boks will move to the top of the world rankings if they beat Ireland, and there will be no arguments regarding their status if they win in the biggest game of the World Cup pool phase.

The only way they’re going to pressure and compromise a well-drilled Ireland side is by converting the bulk of their opportunities into points.

It may seem an obvious statement to make, until you remember how the Boks have fired in patches over the past three seasons, and how they have left themselves with a mountain to climb in some of the bigger Tests.

They conceded 17 unanswered points in the first quarter of the game against the All Blacks in Auckland earlier this year. Though they fought back and outscored New Zealand in the second half, they still went down 35-20.

That result in New Zealand remains their only loss in eight Tests this year. Yet they should keep the lesson from the Auckland disappointment in mind ahead of Saturday’s match, as well as the lessons from the Dublin defeat.

Like New Zealand, Ireland have the players to score a few quick tries in as many minutes, and this can be the difference in a big match. The Bok leaders – Siya Kolisi, Bongi Mbonambi and several others – will need to keep the team focused for 80 minutes. Again, it sounds obvious, but the evidence suggests it’s easier said than done.

Nienaber and Erasmus will also have game-shaping roles to play in terms of how they respond to early setbacks – whether the Boks concede points or suffer an injury or two in key positions. Even if everything goes to plan, the timing of the substitutions in the second half – read the deployment of the “bomb squad”, which includes seven forwards this week – will be crucial.

The battle between the Bok coaches and Andy Farrell has been likened to a game of chess and it will be fascinating to see how this intricate contest plays out, particularly as the match approaches the 50-minute mark – when front-rankers are traditionally replaced. How the coaches manage utility players Deon Fourie and Marco van Staden will also be telling.

If the Boks lose in Paris, they may live to fight another day, as they could still qualify for the playoffs with a win in the final pool match against Tonga on 1 October.

But knowing Erasmus and Nienaber, they will be desperate to land a psychological blow on a team that’s proved almost unbeatable for the better part of two seasons. The time to stand up, fight and be counted has arrived. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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