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Springboks brim with confidence in Ireland

November 7, 2014

Finally beating New Zealand set South Africa up perfectly for its northern hemisphere tour, and has allowed coach Heyneke Meyer the breathing space to joke about his apparently uncomplimentary reputation back home.

Meyer said in the buildup to Saturday’s tour-opener against Ireland in Dublin that he was still viewed as “dull” and “conservative” in South Africa — even “stupid.”

But that belies the progress he’s made with the previously one-dimensional Springboks.

Last month’s breakthrough 27-25 win over the All Blacks, the world champion’s first loss in two years, gave Meyer and South Africa an ideal platform to fine-tune a more rounded game plan on a four-match trip to Europe. It is South Africa’s last trip to the north before next year’s Rugby World Cup in England and Wales.

Meyer had no problem in picking the same starting 15 that beat top-ranked New Zealand to face Six Nations champion Ireland, which must come to terms with life without retired center Brian O’Driscoll, the game’s most capped international.

In Ireland’s midfield, Robbie Henshaw, with three caps, and uncapped New Zealand-born Jared Payne form a new partnership. Gordon D’Arcy returned to fitness from a groin injury, but not early enough in the week to be considered by coach Joe Schmidt.

“Ireland have been blessed with a center pairing (O’Driscoll and D’Arcy) for a huge length of time that have not necessarily been the biggest, but been as physical as the best,” Schmidt said. “Physicality sometimes determined by the will rather than the size. Hopefully on Saturday we’ll get a bit of both from our center pairing.”

Amid a raft of injuries, much of the home team’s hopes rest on the experience in the engine room of lock and captain Paul O’Connell. O’Connell will become Ireland’s most capped second-rower with his 95th cap, and South Africa veteran Victor Matfield said he rated his opposite number on Saturday as the best he’s played against.

It took Meyer six games to beat New Zealand, but his Springboks have won all six of their previous end-of-year matches in the northern hemisphere since he took over in 2012. The ability to tough out wins in the north — where South Africa’s forward muscle is still an important factor — has been blended with Meyer’s often-stated desire to score more tries in the backs.

“Back home, people see me as this dull, Afrikaans, stupid, conservative guy,” Meyer said this week. In fact, Meyer said, he considered himself an “unbelievable risk-taker.”

One of his risks, which paid off handsomely, was the rapid promotion of 20-year-old Handre Pollard to starting flyhalf. Pollard scored two tries in the Boks’ tense win over New Zealand in Johannesburg and is seen as the player to lead South Africa’s rejuvenated backline at the World Cup.

The tests against Ireland, England, Italy and Wales over the next four weekends are a World Cup dress rehearsal in European conditions for the No. 2-ranked Springboks.

But in Dublin, Ireland has brought a high-flying South Africa back down to earth before — in 2004, when the Springboks were southern hemisphere champions, and in 2009, when they were world champions.

“We are, to use a boxing analogy, fighting a weight category above us and I am hoping we can land a punch on the heavyweight,” Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said.

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Lineups:

Ireland: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry, Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell (captain), Devin Toner, Mike Ross, Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath. Reserves: Richardt Strauss, Dave Kilcoyne, Rodney Ah You, Mike McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Felix Jones.

South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers (captain), Bryan Habana, Handre Pollard, Francois Hougaard; Duane Vermeulen, Teboho Mohoje, Marcell Coetzee, Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger, Cobus Reinach, Pat Lambie, JP Pietersen.

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