It’s that time of the year again! Summer is long gone, Halloween has just passed, and there remains a further six weeks until Christmas. What is there, then, to get excited about? Certainly, for rugby fans, there is an answer. The Autumn series of international matches begins this weekend! Many of the top-tier nations face tasty encounters, yet none more so than Ireland – who, having recently lost the great Brian O’Driscoll, will face up to the mighty Springboks of South Africa, a team still fresh after having felled the mighty All-Blacks 27-25 in a fierce encounter in early October. Irish coach Joe Schmidt is to field an inexperienced and highly experimental side for the encounter at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Can Ireland pull off the improbable?
The odds remain against them. Schmidt, in his squad named this week, has filled the gap left by O’Driscoll with uncapped New-Zealand-born fullback Jared Payne. Payne will be partnered in the centres by 21-year-old Connacht centre Robbie Henshaw. Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton make up the half-back pairing, whilst Simon Zebo, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe shall start at left wing, fullback and right wing respectively. In the forwards, little change has been made to the group which won the six nations as O’Connell, O’Mahony, Heaslip, McGrath and Ross all retain their spots in the pack. Chris Henry, Ulster flanker, shall start at openside with six-foot-eight giant Devin Toner starting alongside O’Connell at second row.
South Africa are to field an identical team to that which toppled New Zealand in the final round of the Rugby Championship, as Heynecke Meyer shall seek to overcome the experimental Irish side with experience and reliability. 20-year-old Fly-half Handre Pollard has retained his place ahead of experienced Natal Sharks playmaker Pat Lambie, and Cheetahs wing Cornal Hendricks continues to keep vastly-experienced JP Pietersen out of the side with a string of stellar performances in the Championship itself and in the Super 15 competition. It is possible that Meyer shall field a slightly weaker team during the Bokke’s visit to Twickenham the following week, as he may seek to start uncapped hooker Robbie Coetzee, prop Julian Redelinghuys and wing Seabelo Senatla.
It will doubtless prove a huge test for the Irish team, and many analysts question whether the fragile midfield will be able to contain opposite numbers Jean de Villiers (inside centre) and Jan Serfontein (outside centre). Personally, as an ardent (and optimistic) yet disillusioned fan of the Men in Green, it is my belief that the defensive frailties exhibited by both Henshaw and Payne during recent Guinness Pro12 and European fixtures might be the shortcoming which could sink Irish hearts. However, I must also stress the attacking skill and ingenuity with which both players (and the remainder of the Irish team in general) are known to play – something which might just turn the match in the home side’s favour. Regardless of the outcome, it is certain to be an enjoyable and highly entertaining encounter, with no love lost betweeen the two sides, ever since their scrappy encounter during the group stages of the 1999 World Cup. Clear your saturday, as this will be one for the barstools!
Ireland vs South Africa, Aviva Stadium (Dublin), Sturday 5.30pm (local time) Ref: Romain Poite (FRA)
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