The script rarely changes although to be fair to the Irish they got amongst the Springboks in an infamous Test in Pretoria in the summer. On that occasion South Africa did not thank the Irish, they condemned them for their hostility. Ireland had lost the first Test in Bloemfontein 62-10, and although they lost the second 33-0 they went down fighting. The Englishman, Ed Morrrison, refereed the first match and it was relatively incident- free; a Frenchman was in charge for the second and all hell broke loose. The general consensus was that the referee had a bad day and when a high and late tackle on the Springbok scrum-half, Joost van der Westhuizen, went unpunished, the impression was gained that both teams could indulge themselves with impunity.
Had Lansdowne Road been Madison Square Garden, a repeat of the punch- up in Pretoria would produce a sell-out. Unfortunately, the parties concerned here were being ultra-responsible, playing down any attempts to describe today's collision as a grudge match. In Pretoria, the Springbok's enlightened coach, Nick Mallett, said he was appalled at the violence; in Dublin he was telling a different story.
"It's not a concern. I think the second Test was an aberration. What happened was that in the first Test we weren't prepared for the physical confrontation. It was our fault, we weren't perhaps as respectful of the Irish as we should have been. There was a massive difference between their performances in the Tests and the provincial games. We judged them on their midweek performances and were surprised at how physical and committed they were. History tells us that Ireland can be 50 per cent better on a Test day."
Ed Morrison was the original choice to referee today's match but declined on the grounds that familiarity can breed contempt. Clayton Thomas of Wales will be in charge, with Morrison a touch judge.
As it is, the head-to-head confrontation between Keith Wood and James Dalton, providing the latter gets over a niggling hamstring, could be worth the admission money alone. With the retirement of the great All Black, Sean Fitzpatrick, Wood and Dalton are not only the world's foremost hookers but two of the most abrasive and influential players in international rugby.
Wood was in his element on the Lions tour to South Africa last year and he will have to play another huge game if Ireland, whose tight five emerged with credit from their short tour of the Republic, are to have a serious chance of interrupting South Africa's fabulous run.
Wales came close to doing so at Wembley for a variety of reasons, not least an inspired all-round performance from a side playing its first match under the New Zealand coach Graham Henry. "I don't think people have given Wales enough credit for that performance," Mallett said. "They really were very good that day, added to which we were off our game."
South Africa looked under-prepared at Wembley; against Scotland at Murrayfield normal service was resumed. That victory last Saturday extended their sequence to 16 successive Test wins and another today will equal the world record set by the All Blacks in the mid-60s.
Warren Gatland, Ireland's New Zealand coach, has been quick in the last few days to change his stance from one of damage-limitation to a rallying call that Ireland can pull off a famous victory. "I'm offended by talk of a purely defensive approach," Gatland said. "We are going out there to win and we believe we can. Anything else would be doing the Irish jersey a disservice."
As for the jersey, Ireland will wear not green but white with a green shoulder trim. Gatland has seen the light, even if it's still at the end of the tunnel.
IRELAND: C O'Shea (London Irish); J Bishop (London Irish), J Bell (Dungannon), K Maggs (Bath), G Dempsey (Terenure College); E Elwood (Galwegians), C McGuinness (St Mary's College); J Fitzpatrick (Dungannon), K Wood (Harlequins), P Clohessy (Young Munster), P Johns (Saracens capt), M O'Kelly (London Irish), D O'Cuinneagain (Sale), A Ward (Ballynahinch), V Costello (St Mary's College). Replacements: R Henderson (Wasps), D Humphreys (Dungannon), C Scally (UCD), D Corkery (Cork Constitution), J Davidson (Castres), R Corrigan (Lansdowne), R Nesdale (Newcastle).
SOUTH AFRICA: P Montgomery (Griqualand West); S Terblanche (Boland Cavaliers), A Snyman (Blue Bulls), C Stewart (Western Province), P Rossouw (Western Province); H Honiball (Natal Sharks), J van der Westhuizen (Blue Bulls); R Kempson (Natal Sharks), J Dalton (Golden Lions), A Garvey (Natal Sharks), K Otto (Blue Bulls), M Andrews (Natal Sharks), J Erasmus (Free State), B Skinstad (Western Province), G Teichmann (Natal Sharks, capt). Replacements: G du Toit (Griqualand West), F Smith (Blue Bulls), W Swanepoel (Free State), C Krige (Western Province), A Venter (Free State), O Le Roux (Natal Sharks), N Drotske (Free State).
Referee: C Thomas (Wales).