Perhaps the most revealing match of pool play in regards to the standings in World Rugby is on our doorstep. Ireland and South Africa will square off at Stade de France in a match with huge implications moving forward.
A match between the top two ranked teams in the world may sound like the synopsis for a final rather than round three of the pool stages, and it might end up being a prequel to the final in just over a month’s time, but that is exactly what rugby fans have to look forward to in another delicious serving of rugby this weekend.
The winner will be in the driver’s seat of Pool B with a likely matchup with the All Blacks in the quarter-final, while the loser will have to fend off any further challenges from Tonga, Scotland and Romania to claim second and potentially face France in the first round of the knockout stages.
Ireland have an undefeated record over the past 14 months, including a 19-16 win over South Africa last November, but face a hungry Springbok outfit who have downed New Zealand and Scotland in recent outings.
It’s a clash of the best of the best and predicting a winner is no easy task. Despite initially picking South Africa to emerge victorious, one Kiwi pundit has switched to favour the Irish.
“Again, 60 per cent possession, 64 per cent territory, 59 points. They’re in a rhythm,” James Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, referring to Ireland’s statistics in their dominant round two win over Tonga.
“What I like is they’re just keeping the combinations together. They’ll probably rest them after this, if they can get the result, they’ll rest them, they’ll know they’re through.
“You’ve got to look at (Siya) Kolisi and I suppose the team, they have come out in defence of (Manie) Libbok, but with (Handré) Pollard coming in, he could be a difference-maker. He seriously could. And that’s the only unknown.
“Without that, and I’m obviously a big fan of (Malcolm) Marx, you’d have to say Ireland, you would expect to win.
“Massive opportunity for South Africa to sort of rock the competition because everyone will be expecting Ireland to win.
“Ireland are just so slick. How good is Bundee Aki? He’s just found vintage form. He was sort of on the outer, he wasn’t starting and now, 19 carries, (the lines he runs), just committed.
“What helps Bundee I think is the discipline of his teammates to keep committed to their role in the system and the bodies in motion. It makes defenders think.”
Parsons went on to emphasise how the Springboks will have to be assertive in their decision-making on defence, as any hesitation could leave a weak shoulder for the damaging running of Aki to exploit.
His co-panelist, former Maori All Black Bryn Hall, was less convinced the result would go in Ireland’s favour. Hall has the benefit of being teammates with a Springbok who made it clear, the South Africans would play to their strengths.
“Talking to Kwagga Smith last year around how they think they could beat Ireland, it’s the physicality and being able to slow down their ball.
“Last time they actually played, they just lost to Ireland, but what they did in and around that breakdown area, winning collisions, making it really slow, you saw Ireland didn’t get things all their own way in there. They weren’t able to actually have that animation and be able to get that go-forward ball that you’re talking about.
“I can see the South African boys having a 6-2 split and just trying to physically beat up and slow down that ball of the Irish.”
While the Springbok pack is renowned for being the most imposing in the rugby world, Ireland are coming off the back of a performance against a team with some world-class physicality in their own right.
Tonga, on paper, looked to be the side with superior size. A whopping 60kg differential in pack weights was noted at scrum time and yet both teams won 100 per cent of their scrums.
Around the park as well, Ireland were more than up to the task of dealing with the ‘Ikale Tahi’s huge ball runners.
“Tonga though – if you look at Ireland defensively – only 37% of (Tonga’s) carries were gain line, and they’re not small men,” Parsons rebutted. “That (Springbok) physicality, I’m not sure is as dominant in this matchup.
“Ireland are one of the more physical sides. The one area I do agree with you is, when they went into the 22, 16 entries, only eight tries. I know that sounds ridiculous but when they’re humming, Ireland aren’t a team that let you off the hook.
“To be at 50 per cent for 22 entries, you’re probably only going to get three or four opportunities against a team like South Africa and you need to probably make them all count.
“Because they – and I think if Pollard starts – can really open you up out wide with their speedsters but also they’ll kick their penalties.”
Winning the battle up front will no doubt go a long way to deciding the result. The pundits admitted it was so difficult to call that it may come down to selections on the day.
“If I was to call it now without knowing (the teams), even if Pollard starts, I think Ireland will win.”
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