The Ireland Rugby tour to South Africa will be interesting one after recent retirements of old stalwarts and injuries in both camps.
Ireland will be doing without the services of Simon Zebo, Tommy Bow, Cian Healy, Denis Buckley, Nathan White, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Johnny Sexton, Rob and Dave Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald due to injury. Although they have already played a Six Nations tournament without their inspirational former captain Paul O’Connell, his leadership qualities will be missed during a tough tour.
Ireland has called up Craig Gilroy, Matt Healy, Ian Madigan and Tiernan O’Halloran as replacements. Paddy Jackson will have very big boots to fill to fill in for Jonathan Sexton. He has done this admirably in the 2015 Rugby World Cup when he was required to do so, but will he do so in a weakened Ireland team?
An added level of spice in this Test series in the three former South Africans included in the Ireland team in CJ Stander, Richardt Strauss and Quinn Roux. CJ Stander was one of the last South Africa Under 20 players who have the opportunity to play Test rugby for another country after SARU decided to nominate their under 20 team as their official “second team”. The previous “second team” was the South African “A” side, which has not played since 2008 and has only recently been revived. Facing a future of fighting for Test selection against the likes of Duane Vermeulen, Stander made the decision to qualify for Ireland by way of residency. Richardt Strauss will face his cousin Adriaan , the newly selected Springbok captain, should he take the field during the series, also courtesy of qualification by residency.
Lock forward Quinn Roux followed the same route and landed up in Ireland via the Stormers, Leinster and then Connacht.
The Springboks have also been hit by retirements subsequent to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The names of Jean de Villiers, Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield will no longer be found on Springbok team sheets. A knee injury to two flyhalf Handre Pollard could have been a blow, but the timely return of Pat Lambie from injury has been a saving grace, as well as the news that Elton Jantjies’ injury is not as serious as previously thought. Centre Jan Serfontein has been ruled out of contention with a wrist injury as has Pieter-Steph du Toit with a grade 2 hamstring tear.
Players such as Juan de Jongh, Bryan Habana and Cheslyn Kolbe were also not considered for selection due to their 7’s commitments and their quest for an Olympic gold medal. Added to this, few players who have moved outside of South Africa to ply their trade have been considered for selection. Notable exclusions have been the Du Plessis brothers, Bismark and Jannie, Johan Goosen and Frans Steyn. Alister Coetzee has sent a very clear message to South African players – if you want to be chosen for the Springboks, you do need to play in South Africa.
An interesting selection was that of Garth April. In early 2015, he was playing semi-professional club rugby in the Gold Cup. To the Sharks credit, they identified his talent and contracted him to play for their Currie Cup team in 2015. When Pat Lambie was ruled out of Super Rugby for 3 months, April filled his position with aplomb. His selection in the Springbok squad was a bit of a bolter, but he does appear to have the ability to step up a level.
The 2016 season also saw a change in the trend of selection. Numerous Emirates Lions players were selected for the Springbok squad, just reward for three seasons of continuous improvement.
So how will they match up?
We see Ireland playing their mixed game of solid forward play, with the occasional attack out wide. They will sorely miss the leadership of O’Connell and the game management of Sexton. They have also lost a lot of attacking ability in their backline as well as firepower up front and their reserve strength will be tested.
The Springboks have challenges of their own. They have a new Head Coach in Alister Coetzee, who has not had the freedom to select his own support staff other than Matt Proudfoot. His appointment was also announced very late in the piece, so his preparation time has been limited. He has also had to make decisions regarding the number of overseas based players he included in his squad, as well as the type of player he would select. Should he go with the traditional forward based game plan and bloody minded defence, or should he go with a more expansive game plan that supporters are demanding? Based on his selections, it would appear that he is going for the latter option.
How do we see the Test series panning out?
We see the first Test in Cape Town as Ireland’s best opportunity to upset the Springboks. The Springboks will have a new coach and a significantly changed squad since their last international game and may be a little disjointed and caught between game plans. With the additional time to prepare and gel together, we see the Springboks winning this series by winning the last two Tests in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth even if they are tipped over in Cape Town.
Finlay Bealham, Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Ultan Dillane, Tadhg Furlong,Jamie Heaslip,Iain Henderson,
Dave Kilcoyne,Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Sean Reidy, Mike Ross, Quinn Roux, Rhys Ruddock,
Donnacha Ryan , CJ Stander, Richardt Strauss, Devin Toner
Keith Earls, Craig Gilroy, Matt Healy, Robbie Henshaw, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan, Kieran Marmion,
Luke Marshall, Conor Murray, Tiernan O’Halloran, Stuart Olding, Jared Payne, Eoin Reddan , Andrew Trimble
Forwards: Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Steven Kitshoff, Siya Kolisi, Jaco Kriel, Francois Louw, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Franco Mostert, Tendai Mtawarira, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Scarra Ntubeni, Trevor Nyakane, Julian Redelinghuys, Adriaan Strauss, Duane Vermeulen, Warren Whiteley
Backs: Garth April, Ruan Combrinck, Damian de Allende, Faf de Klerk, Nic Groom, Elton Jantjies, Jesse Kriel, Patrick Lambie, Willie le Roux, Lionel Mapoe, Lwazi Mvovo, Rudy Paige, JP Pietersen