It will certainly be a blockbuster start to the Bank of Ireland Nations Series when Ireland host World champions South Africa at a sold-out Aviva Stadium on Saturday week.
Fresh from their historic series win in New Zealand, Andy Farrell’s men are top of the World Rugby Rankings and begin the new international season by taking on the Springboks, who finished second in the recent Rugby Championship.
Farrell’s first involvement with Ireland was as defence coach for the 2016 summer tour to South Africa, a series which saw them make history with a first ever Test win over the ‘Boks on South African soil.
The teams’ most recent meeting was a comprehensive 38-3 home victory for Ireland in November 2017. The South Africans’ long-awaited return to Dublin has Farrell and the squad preparing for a much stiffer test.
“They’ve got a unique way of playing and they’re all on the same page, and that’s their strength, isn’t it?,” Farrell said of South Africa, who won four of their six Rugby Championship games, including a 26-10 defeat of the All Blacks in Mbombela.
“We’re super excited to be playing them first up. We know that they’re unbelievably well prepared after just being together for so long since the summer. The challenge for us is to make sure that we use these two weeks wisely until then.
“South Africa know their points of difference and they go after it hard. They’ve been very successful at being able to do that. Obviously being aware of what South Africa are about is absolutely key because we need to know what they’re trying to achieve.
“But, at the same time, how we progress our game is just as, if not more important. Probably if you want to compare it to what we’ve faced over the shortest period of time, probably the French away game (back in February).
“Big set who go after you properly in defence and set pieces. Obviously a main part of their game, play a good territory-type strangling game, a pressure-type game.
“So, obviously that didn’t work out too well for us in the end (against France), and we need to show progression from that.”
Of course, there is greater familiarity between the sides given the top four South African franchises are now bedded into the BKT United Rugby Championship, with the DHL Stormers the current holders of the trophy.
Ireland’s November opener has added spice with South Africa joining them in Pool B at next year’s Rugby World Cup. Before that, the leading Irish and South African players will continue to see a lot more of each other in the URC and EPCR tournaments.
September 23, 2023 is the date of that crunch pool clash in Paris, but Farrell had dismissed the potential for shadow boxing next week. Ireland’s full focus is on progressing their game further through an exciting Bank of Ireland Nations Series.
Asked about the relevance to the World Cup fixture, he replied: “There’s a long time between drinks as far as that’s concerned. Concentrating on the here and now is what we’re after.
“We’re after progressing our game, like we always are in any competition. Then seeing how the land lies after this, and going into what is going to be an unbelievably competitive Six Nations.”
The Ireland squad that came together at Carton House on Monday contained six uncapped players – Ciaran Frawley, Jeremy Loughman, Joe McCarthy, Calvin Nash, Jimmy O’Brien and Cian Prendergast – and they are all understandably champing at the bit to be involved.
It is very much a case of opportunity knocks for them given how injuries have led to some uncertainty around who exactly will make the matchday 23 for Ireland’s Test against South Africa.
“We know that there are some injuries knocking around, but that’s to be shaped in any type of competition, including the World Cup in the future. This is what we’re going to be up against,” insisted Farrell.
Giving opportunities to other people and be able to try out different combinations, we’ll see how that flourishes or not in the next week or so.
“There’s one guy, ‘Nashy’, who’s in for the first time. He did so well on the Emerging Ireland tour. He’s in for the first time, he’s earned the right to be in as well.
“There’s an opportunity for him, but there are six guys there that are trying to battle it out and prove to not just me, to the rest of their team-mates, that they deserve a first cap. That’s pretty special.
“And then, on top of that, you’ve got Conor (Murray) that is one away from the 100. So there’s some nice milestones for people to reach out to.”
Jacob Stockdale, who has been nursing an ankle injury, will be reintegrated into training this week. Farrell took notice of how Stockdale hit the ground running with Ulster this season and he liked what he saw.
The 26-year-old has not played for Ireland since scoring against Japan in July of last year. He was also a try scorer when Ireland last hosted the Springboks five years ago.
“I’m delighted to see Jacob back in the room,” admitted the Ireland head coach. “He obviously had a very tough time of it last year, but he’s shown resilience and I was really impressed with how he started the season.
“I thought he really showed at the start of the season what he was trying to achieve and where he was trying to get to. Unfortunately he got injured again over the last couple of weeks.
“But I thought he started back really strong, determined. I thought he looked strong in contact, etc. You could see that hunger back in him.”