Cape Town – Ireland’s kick-chase execution will have to be “pretty special” to stop Cheslin Kolbe in his tracks in Saturday’s clash against the Springboks in Dublin (7.30pm SA time kickoff), according to coach Andy Farrell.
Some critics may see Kolbe’s selection at fullback this week, after featuring exclusively at wing in his 20 previous Tests, as a major gamble.
But Farrell believes that it is an exciting development for the South Africans, and being a defence guru himself, he will have come up with a watertight strategy to deal with Kolbe at the Aviva Stadium.
“It’s great! I’m a big fan of getting the best players out on the field, and trying a few things along the way when the stability in certain other areas, where you can really give somebody like Kolbe a chance to be himself…” the former England centre and rugby league star said at the Irish team announcement on Thursday.
“He offers, obviously, a different threat – our kick-chase has got to be pretty special. And him chiming into the line, not just on the flanks, but in the middle of the field and three-quarter edges, he is going to test us because we know that he is a world-class player.”
Ireland have taken somewhat of a risk themselves at fullback by choosing Hugo Keenan, who hasn’t played any rugby for Leinster in the United Rugby Championship due to an abdomen issue, while flank Josh van der Flier (ankle) and reserve scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park (hamstring) are in the same boat.
They are also missing the likes of the injured James Lowe and the suspended Bundee Aki in the backline.
But Farrell doesn’t feel that he is taking too much of a chance against the world champions.
“(Picking Keenan) calculated (risk) is probably the right word! I suppose when you weigh everything up – the injuries, the personnel that you’ve got, and then when people come back into camp – it almost goes back down to zero for us, and you judge them from there…” the Irish mentor said.
“When you’re talking about somebody like Hugo (fullback), I don’t know… We could talk all day about him really. He’s the fittest in the team, he’s probably the most diligent in the team as well, as far as his work and the confidence that gives – not only across his own work, but everyone else’s work, and the confidence that he brings to the group in that regard.”
But as much as Ireland thrive on playing a multi-phase attacking game, their forwards will have their hands full in trying to contain a Bok pack that will look to impose themselves physically.
The battle for the loose ball between Van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony and Dan Sheehan against Boks such as Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and captain Siya Kolisi will also have a major bearing on the result.
The two nations will face each other in Pool B at next year’s World Cup as well, so a psychological advantage is at stake too.
“We just think it’s the right pack for this game, to be able to play our game. The respect that South Africa have shown us in their continuity of their forward pack as well says a lot, and it should be an interesting battle,” Farrell said.
“(The two teams’ styles) It is different, which is a great thing for us because it’s something we need to judge ourselves on – the style of play that they play – because of what’s down the track (World Cup clash).
“They are obviously a world-class side… They 100 percent play to their strengths, and that’s what rugby’s all about – finding out what your strength is, and applying it. And they do it better than most.
“The lessons learnt are going to be vast for both sides, win or lose. The team that loses will learn a little bit more, I would’ve thought, and know which direction they want to go – not just game-plan-wise, but personnel-wise, etc.
“That’s why I think this is priceless for both teams. It’s a great match-up, and it’s exciting for what’s down the track. But for the here and now, it’s pretty good as well.”
15 Hugo Keenan 14 Robert Baloucoune 13 Garry Ringrose 12 Robbie Henshaw 11 Mack Hansen 10 Johnny Sexton (captain) 9 Conor Murray 8 Caelan Doris 7 Josh van der Flier 6 Peter O’Mahony 5 James Ryan 4 Tadhg Beirne 3 Tadhg Furlong 2 Dan Sheehan 1 Andrew Porter.
Bench: 16 Rob Herring 17 Cian Healy 18 Finlay Bealham 19 Kieran Treadwell 20 Jack Conan 21 Jamison Gibson-Park 22 Joey Carbery 23 Stuart McCloskey.