Sexton biggest threat to Boks

GAVIN MORTIMER, writing in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, analyses Ireland, South Africa’s first opponents on their Grand Slam tour.

Strengths
Ireland are the most experienced of the home unions with Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, John Hayes and Paul O’Connell boasting a total of 374 caps between them. Familiarity has bred contentment within the squad, while it’s also proved invaluable in bringing on a new generation of exciting talent, most notably No 8 Jamie Heaslip, flanker Stephen Ferris and flyhalf Johnny Sexton. Though no official announcement has been made, O’Driscoll will probably retire from Test rugby after next year’s World Cup, so expect a big season from Europe’s finest centre.

Weaknesses
Conversely, Ireland’s strength may also be their weakness. In 2003 an ageing England team just managed to remain at their peak long enough to win the World Cup but is this Ireland side on the wane? The core of the team – O’Driscoll, O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Gordon D’Arcy, Hayes, O’Gara and Jerry Flannery – are all in their 30s and with the game getting faster one wonders whether their legs and lungs will last the course. Then there’s their front row, the one area in which Ireland lack genuine talent. Hayes has propped up the scrum since 2000 but he’s just turned 37 and there are few challengers for his tighthead berth.

Key player
Sexton is still not the finished article but he has the potential to be a far more complete player than O’Gara ever was, his rival for the No 10 jersey. Whereas the latter is noted for his defensive frailties, the 91kg Sexton is strong in the tackle and likes to run at the opposition. The 25-year-old needs greater consistency in his goal-kicking but as he showed against Australia in June (when he slotted five first-half penalties) he appears to be improving in this area.

Game plan
With referees now favouring the attacking side, Ireland showed signs during their tour Down Under that they’ll be playing a more expansive style of rugby this season. When they won the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2009 it had a lot to do with the tactical kicking of O’Gara. But coach Declan Kidney now seems intent on adding more width to the Irish game using the speed of Lions trio Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls.

Recent form
Since Ireland beat the Springboks a year ago at Croke Park they’ve suffered a dip in form. Yes, they beat England and Wales in the Six Nations but they were also hammered 33-10 by France and beaten 23-20 by Scotland in Dublin. Then there was the dispiriting tour Down Under where they lost all three of their games to New Zealand, the New Zealand Maori and Australia.

Team to play Boks
15 Robert Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll (c), 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Mick O’Driscoll, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 Tony Buckley, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy. Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Tom Court, 18 Donnacha Ryan, 19 Denis Leamy, 20 Peter Stringer, 21 Ronan O’Gara, 22 Keith Earls.

– For more on the Grand Slam tour, get the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine