To say that Jack Crowley is familiar with South Africa and their leading players is an understatement. Just twelve months ago, he was in Bloemfontein with the Emerging Ireland squad for their successful Toyota Challenge campaign.
Four of his final six starts of last season for Munster were on South African soil. From the heartbreak of their Heineken Champions Cup exit at the hands of the Sharks, to toppling the Stormers twice in Cape Town on the way to winning the BKT United Rugby Championship.
Crowley’s standout moment was undoubtedly his decisive drop goal in the semi-final win over Leinster, but he gained a lot from twice testing himself at out-half against a Stormers back-line that contained Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse.
Both Libbok and Willemse will start for South Africa against Ireland in Paris on Saturday, and the Cork youngster believes his experience of playing high-stakes matches in Durban and Cape Town will stand to him if he is involved in the matchday squad.
“First of all getting the opportunity to play in those games and (getting) exposed to that type of situation is something that every player wants to be able to grow. So first of all to get those opportunities is something that I’m very thankful for,” he said.
“But, as well as that, getting exposed to such quality sides and different elements that they might bring.
“It’s been something that’s been a bonus for the URC and all the teams in the northern hemisphere. It’s definitely raised the level of competition and challenged us in a different way.”
Crowley made his Rugby World Cup debut against Romania, coming off the bench to kick four conversions and help to set up two tries. He also played in all three warm-up games, getting the full 80 minutes against both Italy and Samoa.
A Test debutant just last November, the 23-year-old brings plenty of versatility with him given his comfort in the out-half, inside centre and full-back positions. It could be a key factor in whether he makes the bench for the showdown with the Springboks.
Asked if there is a negative side to his ability to play in different positions rather than being seen as a more of a specialist out-half, he admitted:
You might look at things and see them as a negative and at times they can be but for me, learning in all those different positions, that is a massive thing I took at the start.
“I never looked at it as a negative being able to cover different positions. Like I’ve said before, if you’re at 15 you know what the 10 is going to be looking for and when you’re at 10 you know what the 15 is going to be defending like, so to get that exposure and those experiences is massive.
“Game-time at any time is massive, so being able to go out there and play 15 or play 12, I don’t really mind. I just like being involved and helping out where I can.”
Crowley duelled with Libbok during those two Munster victories over the Stormers, and he rates the silky South African number 10 highly. His no-look kick to create Kurt-Lee Arendse’s try against Scotland has been one of the attacking moments of this World Cup.
“I think he’s the quality that you see week in, week out. The skills that he has, the kicking you saw against Scotland, the passing ability of him, and then his feet and his pace as well is also a massive strength of his.
“He’s kind of an all-round player skill-wise, and someone who is gifted with that. He’s a really good player and someone we’re going to have to watch out for.”
This is the first time that Ireland and South Africa will play each other in a World Cup, and also at a neutral venue. The teams sit first and second in the current World Rugby rankings respectively, while the match-up brings together the reigning Six Nations and world champions.
The breakdown is sure to be a crucial area of the game, with Ireland having the tournament’s quickest average ruck speed of 2.92 seconds after the opening two rounds, and the Springboks boasting the best ruck retention of 96%.
At the same time as acknowledging the renowned forward power that Jacques Nienaber’s charges possess, Crowley says Ireland will have to be on their toes to keep their dangermen in the back-line quiet.
“First of all a world class side like them, their front five is massive, scrum and maul. But the pace and footwork they have out wide and the passing and kicking ability, we’ve seen it coming up against them with Munster in the URC, and all the other provinces.
“You can see the quality they have in the back-line in terms of skills individually, so that’s going to be a challenge in one way and also it’s going to be a bonus for them.”
Two of Ireland’s leading performers across the first two weeks have been returning captain Jonathan Sexton and Bundee Aki. The Connacht centre is the tournament’s top try scorer (4) and leads the way in terms of carries (39) and metres (375) made, line breaks (7) and defenders beaten (18).
Despite insisting that his form needs to be judged off Pool B’s top of the table clash, Sexton has already set a number of new records at RWC 2023 as Ireland’s all-time top scorer, record World Cup points scorer, oldest international player and joint-top points scorer in a World Cup game.
Crowley has hailed the level of preparation and hard work that both players put into their performances. He believes Sexton’s continued excellence has not hindered the players coming up behind him, rather it has inspired them and the next generation to be the best they can be.
“I think Johnny hasn’t blocked it (the number 10 jersey), he’s actually opened it up to show the possibilities that are capable,” explained the Innishannon native.
“Even at 38 to show to youngsters his skills and the dedication that he put into his game, it can go a long way. He’s showing the youngsters in Ireland what is possible if you apply yourself to your preparation and put everything into the game.
“For every youngster around Ireland, he’s really carving the way for young out-halves particularly. He’s a fella that is leading the way.”
He added: “I don’t think there is just one thing I can take (from working alongside him). I think the level of detail Johnny puts into his preparation. I don’t think that can be undermined.
“Everything you do in the week leads up to the game on the Saturday, and that’s more important so you can go out and perform with confidence.”
With back-to-back braces of tries and two eye-catching displays so far, Aki has been a real talisman for Ireland in the humid French conditions. They will be hoping for more of the same from the midfield bulwark and explosive carrier.
“Bundee’s a team player. But again, the work and detail he puts into his week as an individual that allows him to perform and add to the collective at the weekend,” noted Crowley.
“You see him against Romania last week and Tonga the weekend just gone by, it’s no fluke as to why he is performing the way he is.
“It’s what he is doing throughout the week and making sure lads inside and outside of him know their detail as well. He takes ownership of that as well.
“I think his preparation is something that is massive to him, to allow him to just go out and perform in big games at the weekends.”