Cape Town — When you’ve beaten the All Blacks 32-22 to clinch a 2-1 series win in New Zealand, you deserved to be ranked as the No 1 rugby team in the world.
That was Ireland’s last match — in Wellington in July — so it was no surprise when Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber picked his strongest possible team for Saturday’s clash at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin (7.30pm kick-off, SA time).
The only real ‘experiment’ is Cheslin Kolbe at fullback, as there was an experienced option in Willie le Roux available. Someone like Damian Willemse has also proved that he can handle the pressure of being the starting flyhalf in the absence of Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies.
The Irish are on 90.03 points on the world rankings, ahead of France (89.41) and the Boks (89.00).
The South Africans’ last visit to the Irish capital in November 2017 ended in a disastrous 38-3 defeat, and the man who has intimate knowledge of the home team has a true picture of just how tough Johnny Sexton’s side will be to beat on Saturday.
“I don’t think either team are trying to get the underdog tag. World rankings is a temporary thing and can change like that (go up and down), but when you analyse their team, they are red-hot — and I am not blowing smoke up their arse!” Bok Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus — who was in charge of Munster in 2016 and 2017 — said this week.
“They are just really competitive in all areas of the game, and that’s why, if you look at our team, there are not a lot of unsettled players in this team … We’ve had to take a few chances to develop three players in a position — one guy who starts regularly, one guy pushing and a youngster — but you don’t try that against Ireland in Ireland.
“Ireland were No 1 in the world in 2018 as well, and they also beat the All Blacks. But if you look past the rankings and rather at their players and coaches, (head coach) Andy Farrell, (assistant coach) Paul O’Connell and the other coaching staff, they are very particular and detailed.
“The players here are very pro, pro, pro — there are many things I learnt here that we apply in South Africa. You must give them credit, considering the amount of players they have, to be the No 1 team in the world — it’s unbelievable and they can be proud of that.
“They only have four clubs, and we know their academies work. They just make players better, and decide if someone can be a professional player or not.
“They are bearing the fruits of that mindset, and the way they control foreign players coming to their clubs, compared to other countries … They can be proud.”
Of course, Saturday’s match is also about laying down a marker for next year’s Rugby World Cup, where South Africa and Ireland will square off in a Pool B encounter at the Stade de France in Paris on September 23.
But Erasmus doesn’t want the Boks to think too far ahead.
“I think it (the World Cup game) spices it up, because they gave us 38 points the last time. We were thinking we would play them somewhere, and did a lot of analysis before the 2019 World Cup, and then we played Japan (in the quarter-finals),” the former loose forward said.
“We haven’t beaten them in Ireland since 2012. Since 2018, we were really bad at some things and had a 50% win record (and still won the 2019 World Cup). So, you can’t actually make it relevant, because it’s been the World Cup and British & Irish Lions have taken place since.
“These are two totally new teams, other coaches … it’s just a new game.”