Scores to settle — Boks’ clash with Six Nations champs Ireland a watershed moment for both teams

Scores to settle — Boks’ clash with Six Nations champs Ireland a watershed moment for both teams
Ireland and South Africa clash at the World Cup at Stade de France in Paris on 23 September 2023. (Photo: Christian Liewig – Corbis / Getty Images)

The two-Test series in July has the potential to deliver some of the best rugby this year.

Ireland beat Scotland on 16 March to clinch their second consecutive Six Nations title. Though their 2024 campaign was far from perfect – and included a disappointing 23-22 defeat to a rebuilding England – coach Andy Farrell may be pleased with the mental state of his charges as they turn their attention to a two-Test series against the Springboks in July.

The European media hyped up the Six Nations as an opportunity for redemption in the wake of a poor performance at the 2023 World Cup. Never mind that three of the World Cup semifinalists – South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina – were not among the contenders, or that Europe’s two best teams, Ireland and France, were knocked out of the 2023 showpiece in the quarterfinals.

From the very first weekend of the 2024 Six Nations, we were told by northern hemisphere media and former players that the match between Ireland and France was the World Cup final that should have been.

The hype around Ireland continued to grow as they drove towards a second consecutive Grand Slam. Even after England halted that march at Twickenham in the penultimate round, there was more talk about Ireland as the world’s leading side.

Most consistent between World Cups

Whether you’re Irish or South African, you have to accept that Ireland have been the most consistent Test team for the better part of three years. And in terms of a head-to-head comparison, Ireland have won their past three matches against the Boks.

And yet, since Rassie Erasmus took control of the Boks in 2018, they have won back-to-back World Cups as well as a series against the British & Irish Lions.

The Boks’ struggle for consistency between World Cups does deserve closer scrutiny, but the evidence suggests that this coaching staff and team know how to win big tournaments.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Tricky Wales Test will bolster Springboks’ steady rebuild but captaincy question remains

Whether the Irish have the same mettle has been the subject of debate for some time. Even during this golden era for Irish rugby, in which they have beaten the Boks regularly and won a series in New Zealand (2022), they have failed to win a World Cup playoff. They came close to edging New Zealand in the quarterfinals in 2023, but blew that chance.

And so, for all their consistency and innovation, they still have something to prove. Come July, they will get an opportunity against the Boks in Tests staged at Loftus Versfeld and Kings Park.

Push to evolve

Farrell shouldn’t be too disappointed with the failure to secure another Grand Slam. If Ireland go on to beat the Boks, nobody will remember what transpired in the Six Nations.

Making history in South Africa – and beating the current world champions to boot – will only enhance this legacy. And in the event that this happens, they may reflect on the loss to England as an important part of the journey.

Top coaches often say that teams learn more from their defeats than their victories. Ireland were cruising through the Six Nations until the match at Twickenham, where they were handed several lessons by a more determined England.

Many fans and critics believe that Ireland were simply unlucky – rather than physically and mentally outplayed – in the World Cup loss to New Zealand last October.

The recent defeat to England, however, highlighted the inadequacies, and the players as well as Farrell will know that Ireland have work to do before facing the Boks.

Boks not underdogs for a change

This July, the Boks will be the favourites, owing to their status as world champions, the advantage that South African conditions present, and because Ireland failed to live up to expectations in the 2024 Six Nations.

Farrell and the players have good reason to question their status as the world’s best, even after winning the Six Nations title. This will drive them to find a new level of competence. Had they won another Grand Slam, they may not have tackled these questions with the necessary honesty.

World Cup plans hinge on series

Publicly, Erasmus has played down the importance of results beyond big tournaments. At a press conference two weeks ago, he laid out his plans for the 2027 World Cup. Recent selections for an alignment camp, including 16 uncapped players, served as a commitment to a long-term development plan and a striving for an unprecedented hat-trick of titles.

Let Ireland call themselves the best team in the world. Let people obsess over 80% win records in between World Cups, as if actual silverware at global tournaments is of less significance. In the end, will anyone care if the Boks bomb now and win in Australia in 2027?

In short, yes, and despite his recent comments, Erasmus will be desperate for a victory against Ireland. The Boks lost to Ireland in the World Cup pool stage and have not beaten them since 2016. They will want to set that record straight.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rassie hits the reset button — here’s how Springboks will find their North Star to 2027

What’s more, the outcome of the series will influence plans for the rest of the 2024 season and for the lead-up to the next World Cup. If the Boks lose the series against Ireland and go on to lose the two-match mini-series against New Zealand, the team as well as the coach will be under pressure. In the event that this happens, plans to develop more players on the end-of-year tour to Europe may have to be shelved.

And so, though the series against Ireland will be staged at the beginning of this four-year cycle, it could well be viewed as a watershed for both teams. The Irish will be encouraged to add to their extensive playbook and address their mental frailties.

Meanwhile, Erasmus and his coaches will have to work even harder over the next three months to form plans and countermeasures.

As a result, we may get some of the best rugby played by the world’s two leading teams this July – and a series that exceeds the hype. DM

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Erasmus has a calculator and silverware, he will be building new team. Yet, he has excellent players that will be retired in 2027 that can add some wins in 2024 and 2025.

    If one took the two teams’ 2023 squads and fast-forward to 2027 : how many players would realistically be in 2027 squads? We will retire several players – remember that our AVERAGE age in 2023 was 30y. We need almost a total new forward pack unless we are going in with several players over 35y old. Many of our heroes won’t play 2027. Malherbe, Nyakana, Koch, Mbonambi, Mostert, Fourie, Vermeulen and both Kolisi and Etzebeth will be tipping scale at 36y of age.

  • Roger Sheppard says:

    I do not see this ‘series’ in the same light.
    There is no comparison between this series and a World Cup battle/match!
    If Ireland win, fair enough. If they lose, well, probably equally fair enough. To be sure these 2 could offer some super rugger, tough and uncompromising in themselves, but then, the result will fade in its significance, whatever.
    The next world cup has to see many new Saffers in the ‘Boks side. Mother Nature and the speed of light demand it!!
    Whatever (agin,) just enjoy the encounters. Seize the Spectacles…with golden fluid to hand!

  • Rob Wilson says:

    The question in my mind is whether Ireland get any insider knowledge from Jacques now. Because when it come to mind games, he has a Boks number.

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