Ireland open their November international series on Saturday against a resurgent South Africa, and ahead of the contest there are a number of key match-ups that could determine just who will take the spoils at the Aviva Stadium.
Both head coaches named their match-day 23 on Thursday, with each side brimming with talent and intent. On paper this has the making of an epic battle, with personal duels across the park set to play a key role in the result.
Let’s take a look at three of the most intriguing tussles that lie in wait.
3. Battle Of The Half-Backs
Ireland boasts one of the most talented and formidable half-back pairings in world rugby today. Second, perhaps, only to the All Blacks duo of Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith, Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray have the skills needed to dictate and drive a game in devastating fashion.
Having shone for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand this past summer, the pair are battle-hardened and operating at the peak of their powers.
With over 130 international caps between them, including eleven for the Lions, at this stage of their careers there is little they have not already seen or overcome. In this pair of midfield generals, Ireland is in safe hands.
Up against the Irish duo will be the pair of Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies. By contrast, the Springbok half-back pair are relative newcomers to the international stage, with a combined 30 international caps to their names.
Despite the somewhat smaller cap count, both men are in their late 20s and have enjoyed prolific careers in Super Rugby, with Jantjies kicking over 1,300 points for the Lions and its associated clubs before a move to Japan in 2014.
Against Murray and Sexton, the South African pair will need to be at the top of their game. Whichever duo can control the territory and keep the scoreboard ticking over will go a long way to deciding this contest.
2. The Immovable Object Meets The Irresistible Force
Scrum dominance on Saturday will provide a huge platform for whichever side stamps authority on the pivotal set-piece.
The Springboks have once again included loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira, AKA ‘The Beast’, in their starting 15. There, at the coal face, he will go about the business of destroying whoever is placed in front of him, both in the scrum and the defensive lines.
An absolute force for the past decade, Mtawarira is one of the most feared props in the game and will be a key weapon for the visitors on Saturday.
Where before Ireland may have had a real cause for concern in the front row against a man like ‘The Beast’, these days head coach Joe Schmidt has the luxury of a certain man from New Ross by the name of Tadhg Furlong.
Emerging from the shadow of Mike Ross in the last 18 months, the 24-year-old has quickly established himself as one of the best tighthead props in the world and arguably the best in the northern hemisphere.
Featuring in each of the British and Irish Lions’ three Tests against the All Blacks, Furlong was one of the standout forwards of the tournament and emphatically announced himself on the world stage.
With the Irishman set for a direct head-to-head with the Beast on Saturday, a titanic battle is expected, with the victor set to claim dominion over the scrum, and with it a massive platform from which to potentially deliver victory.
1. Locking Horns
With an earth-shaking war going on in the front row and a tactical chess game being played out behind them, the second-row battle between the massive figures of Eben Etzebeth and Iain Henderson is yet another duel that could sway the match result either way.
Etzebeth, who captains the Springboks on Saturday, is a specimen of a man. At 6′ 8″ and 18.5 st, the 26-year-old is a formidable presence in the second row.
In addition to his size, he can run like a winger and has been terrorising defences for the five years, since the age of only 21.
Often requiring several opponents to fell the rampaging lock, his presence in the side ensures that he will punch holes in even the most organised and sturdy of defensive lines.
Tasked with fighting fire with fire on Saturday is Ulster’s Henderson. Another British and Irish Lion from the summer, Henderson was unlucky not to feature in the Test fixtures with the All Blacks.
Despite this, the 25-year-old delivered some of the most awesome displays of the tour. Rampant in both attack and defence, he continually burst through whatever defence was presented to him, often leaving gaping voids where two or three opponents had once stood.
Etzebeth and Henderson will both be looking to play to their considerable strengths on Saturday, where the name of the game will be ball retention under the most arduous of circumstances.
When not neck deep in a ruck of seething bodies, they will surely be seen taking off on an adventure or two behind enemy lines with the ball wedged under an arm.
As both sides look to put their best foot forward as a cohesive and well-drilled unit, the various personal skirmishes that will take place across the park will make for fascinating viewing.
The ebb and flow of the contest will likely see the protagonists enjoy their own respective purple patches and when all energies are spent and the clock ticks into the red, each one will hope that they have done enough to ensure victory for their side.
Kick-off at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday is 5:30pm.
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