RYAN VREDE analyses the key match-ups and picks a winner of the year-end tour Test in Dublin.
The optimism among Ireland supporters appeared to be high when I first arrived in Dublin last Saturday, but I’ve since sensed a steady shift to something bordering pessimism, in light of injuries to key and experienced players. They still hope for an Ireland victory, of course, but there is none of the strong belief that had accompanied their ambition in recent meetings at Lansdowne Road.
Ireland have won three of the last four Tests in the city. Experienced and respected men among their media contingent predict that dominance will end, despite acknowledging the Springboks’ own struggles with injuries and their poor form in 2012. I think they’re right, although any Springbok victory will not be accompanied by glowing praise of the beauty of their performance.
The forecast is for cold but clear conditions at kick-off, which will assist the attacking play of both sides, not that either team is likely to thrill in their own territory. The Boks won’t veer from the kick-chase method when in their half, and they will look to put Ireland’s receivers under pressure with committed chasers. The hosts have consistently pointed to the importance of putting their primary punters – Ruan Pienaar, Pat Lambie and Zane Kirchner – under pressure. I don’t foresee them achieving this, with the Springboks’ pack likely to be dominant and in so doing buying the aforementioned players time to set themselves and pick their spots (they’ll target fullback Simon Zebo), whether that be up-and-unders or kicks into space.
Pat Lambie’s tactical game showed improvements in the Currie Cup, but the pressure of Test matches is incomparable and he’ll be under close scrutiny in this regard. Lambie will also be thrust further into the spotlight if the Springboks succeed in pressuring Ireland into penalties in kickable positions. He has kicked superbly of late and needs to replicate that form on the international stage. Certainly if Ireland find their attacking groove they are capable of punishing the Springboks for infringements, with Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O’Gara among the most accurate Test goal-kickers in 2012.
If Lambie wobbles with the boot the Springboks have problems. Statistically no team in the world has spent more time in the opposition’s 22m than they have this year, yet the return in terms of tries scored has been desperately poor. They have consistently conceded penalties or made handling errors when on attack in this zone. There needs to be a dramatic reduction in both counts. The Springboks simply have to be more clinical.
The Bok pack has fronted well in set and general play, even against the All Blacks, who are widely regarded to be the strongest eight in the game. They’ll be too good for the Irish, who’ll miss Paul O’Connell’s physicality and leadership and Sean O’Brein’s industry and potency at the breakdown. If Francois Louw can impose himself at breakdown time (off the back of a good gainline contest) it will further compound Ireland’s attacking struggles. I think he will, with Declan Kidney’s team not possessing enough high calibre strike runners to boss the tackle and render Louw a non-factor.
Expect parity at scrum time, while the tourists will boss the lineouts, where their rolling maul will be a massive weapon.
Overall, Ireland will be a fierce competitor but not one with the quality to take advantage of a significantly weakened Springbok side.
VREDE’S CALL: Springboks by 10