A fascinating aspect of Saturday’s Pool B top of the table clash is how Ireland try to get the better of South Africa’s rush defence. Two key men in that regard are centres Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki, who start together for the third week running.
Ringrose can draw on his experience of facing the Springboks in Dublin last November, when he played in both centre positions – due to Stuart McCloskey’s first half injury – and helped debutant Jimmy O’Brien come through a real baptism of fire.
Aki and Robbie Henshaw were suspended and injured respectively for that 19-16 win over the ‘Boks, but both are set to be involved this weekend in Paris, with Aki winning his 50th Ireland cap from the start and his former Connacht team-mate selected on the bench.
As a combination, Ringrose and Aki have proven to be a formidable duo at international level. Ireland have won 18 of the 22 Tests that the pair have started together in midfield.
With four tries and a total of five try involvements, Aki is the Rugby World Cup’s joint-leading try scorer currently. Ringrose has also impressed in attack with five try assists and the same amount of try involvements.
Beating a path to the try-line will be much more difficult against South Africa, who pride themselves on their physicality and their smothering defence. Notably, they have prevented the opposition from scoring a try against them in the first half of their last six matches.
“Incredibly difficult (to break down),” Ringrose said of Jacques Nienaber’s men. “They pride themselves on their defence, they are really well organised. Maybe from the outside it looks chaotic but you can see they’re all on the same page and have players who can make a massive impact defensively.
“It will put our attack under huge stress and the challenge is to try to deal with that. Hopefully we can perform to the level we want to and expect.
“On the other side, attacking-wise they have some of the most dangerous individuals in world rugby, on top, top form, so when we don’t have the ball, there is no room to switch off concentration-wise, otherwise you concede.
“That is not even mentioning the physical challenge. So it is a concoction of everything and we need to be on it.”
Aki, the Mastercard player-of-the-match against Tonga last week, had a memorable Ireland debut when they beat the ‘Boks at the Aviva Stadium in 2017, and he also played against them in the final Test of the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour.
It will be an emotional moment for the 33-year-old to reach the half-century mark, something he felt he did not have a hope of achieving when he initially moved to Galway to play for Connacht back in 2014.
“It’s a huge occasion but I’m trying not to treat it as a big occasion but just what I’d do in a normal week,” admitted Aki, who will join Ringrose in taking on South African centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel.
“Obviously it’s the world champions but for myself and my family, it’s a huge honour to pull on the jersey 50 times. I don’t take it lightly. Every time you put on that the jersey, you try to play the best you can and put your best foot forward.
“To be able to get to 50 is probably like getting to 100 (for someone else). Fifty is a big number and I know how hard it is to get to 100. I’m just quite lucky to be able to put on this jersey for a 50th time and I’ll look forward to it.”
Ringrose has enjoyed some of the best moments of his career playing alongside Aki, including the 2018 Grand Slam triumph in London, the 2018 and 2021 home wins over New Zealand, and more recently extending Ireland’s current winning streak to 15 games.
The Leinster star’s own 50th appearance for Ireland was sadly cut short last March, with a head injury ending his involvement against Scotland. He hopes that his centre partner gets to enjoy his big day in the best possible way by contributing to another Irish win.
I consider myself lucky to play alongside Bundee. Everyone in the group is unbelievably happy to see him get to 50, for him and his family.
“When he first came over (to Ireland), he captured everyone’s hearts at Connacht but he has also done that from the moment he put on the Irish jersey.
“It couldn’t be more deserved and I consider myself lucky to play alongside him and I know the other centres (in the squad) would say the exact same thing.”
Negotiating a way past South Africa’s rush defence will be vital to Ireland’s hopes of winning in the French capital. They are also keen to right some wrongs from their last performance at the Stade de France in February 2022 when they lost 30-24 to France.
Ringrose saw from the ‘Boks’ World Cup opener against Scotland how they were able to contain the Scottish attack and keep them try-less across the full 80 minutes in Marseille. He says Ireland will need to get a number of things right in order to break their defensive line.
“It’s really tough (the rush defence). It’s not by chance they get it, it’s coached well and it’s a nightmare for a lot of teams to play against.
“Sometimes you get blindsided and you don’t see it, so the challenge is to be scanning as much as possible and read body language and cues, but that’s hard to do.
“If the ball has gone away from you, it is about getting connected with your own players to hopefully try to make them make decisions.
“But they are so many good defenders in the team, they usually make the right decisions. There is a whole host of things you need to get right.”
Ireland’s showdown with South Africa at the Saint-Denis cauldron is shaping up to be an intriguing battle, on both sides of the ball. It is a real contrast of styles and one that should hopefully bring the best out of both teams as the quarter-finals loom large on the horizon.
Former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll heaped praise on Ringrose as a defensive leader during the Grand Slam-winning run earlier this year, for how his game has ‘consistently elevated’ and how ‘all the cramming and constant workload is coming to fruition where it is real strategy to what he is doing’.
The player himself said it is a very much a team effort when defending at 13, with a reliance on his team-mates either side of him to ensure they curb the influence of the ‘Boks big ball carriers, shut down the space for kicking and limit the opportunities for their danger men out wide.
“A lot of the time I rely on guys around me to pick up guys when I have missed tackles. With the pace South Africa have out wide and the counter-attack threat they have, you can’t really defend on your own against some of their individuals,” insisted Ringrose.
“They have the physical ability to keep winning the gain-line with their centres, but also their speed and footwork and kicking ability as well.
“You just have to be concentrated and a step ahead, try to read body language, certain cues you might have picked up from watching them. That is the challenge of it. I’m sure we’ll get it wrong sometimes, but hopefully we’ll get more right than wrong.”