When South Africa last visited these shores as reigning Rugby World Cup champions, Jonathan Sexton’s international career was in its infancy. It was November 2009 and he had only just made his Ireland debut.
Taking the reins at out-half from Ronan O’Gara, Sexton kicked all 15 points in only his second Test appearance as the home side, fresh from that year’s historic Grand Slam success, defeated the Springboks at Croke Park.
Saturday will mark the current Ireland captain’s sixth time to play South Africa on home soil, the last two occasions taking his win tally to three thanks to those convincing victories from 2014 (29-15) and 2017 (38-3).
It is always a hugely physical battle coming up against the ‘Boks – Sexton played out the 2009 game with two broken fingers – but with plenty of pace in their selected back-line, he knows they are much more than the power game they are famed for.
“The South African DNA is unbelievably strong up front, strong set piece, they base the majority of their game off that. Good kicking game, good in the air,” highlighted Sexton, who is set to captain his country for the 21st time in the Bank of Ireland Nations Series opener.
“But they’re also not afraid to play when it’s on, and they’re also not afraid to go wide-wide, and they’ve picked a pretty exciting back-line.
“A back-line that they probably haven’t had the luxury of picking so far with injuries and suspensions and stuff. To bring (Cheslin) Kolbe back, and (Kurt-Lee) Arendse on the right wing, they’re almost like duplicates of each other so we’ve got double threats there.
“They’ve got top quality players across the park. They build their game on strong set piece, strong kicking game, pressure. They’re pretty well rounded.”
Damian Willemse, who won the BKT United Rugby Championship with the DHL Stormers last season, will be Sexton’s opposite number this weekend. The versatile 24-year-old start at out-half, alongside the Cell C Sharks’ Jaden Hendrikse.
The Ireland skipper rates Willemse highly, acknowledging: “He’s a very, very good player. I suppose he’s only played a couple of games at 10 for South Africa. He’s unpredictable, he’s got fantastic footwork, he’s got a good kicking game, strong and fast obviously.
“Some traits you wouldn’t normally associate with a 10, but he’s an excellent player. We’re going to have to be ready to play but we expected him to be named at 10. We’ve done a little bit of analysis on him and will do some more.”
Despite narrowly missing out on the Rugby Championship title to New Zealand, Jacques Nienaber’s men took plenty of encouragement from their biggest win over New Zealand since 1928 and their first Test victory in Australia since 2013.
This weekend will see them come up against some of the British & Irish Lions players they defeated to win the 2021 Covid-19-impacted Series, including Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan who started all three Tests.
While also encouraged by the form of the South African sides in the URC and their eagerly-awaited debuts in the Heineken Champions Cup, Nienaber is bracing his squad for a supercharged clash with an Ireland team that ‘can be a force to be reckoned with in Dublin’.
“We last faced Ireland on their home patch in 2017 and they beat us 38-3 in that match, and they also beat us here 29-15 in 2014 and they will draw confidence from that,” said the former Munster defence coach.
“Similarly to us, they will also view this as a vital match with an eye on next year’s Rugby World Cup in France where we will cross paths in the pool stages.
“Obviously we are a long way out from the World Cup, but we have a limited number of games left before the competition. The preparation doesn’t get better than playing a side we will face in the World Cup and the number one side in the world.
“This match is important for us for many reasons, one of which is to test our player combinations with the World Cup less than a year away.”
For Sexton, the opening Test of the Bank of Ireland Nations Series is a chance for Ireland to build on what they achieved during the summer and to start the new international season on a strong footing.
“It’s what we need. We need another big test and to find out where we’re at. Obviously we have to give South Africa the respect that they absolutely deserve. They’re the best team in the world in terms of they’re world champions,” he added.
They’re a top class team. They’ve won the World Cup, beat the Lions, had some big results over the last few years. So in terms of testing ourselves, it’s huge.
How we can get a result? We have to bring our game and make sure we do it even better. Because when you have a couple of results like we did during the summer, teams start to properly look at you and it’s like, ‘how are we going to mess up this Ireland team?’
“How are we going to combat this? We’ve got to do it better and we’ve got to evolve a little bit and make sure that we bring something new to the table.”