Captain Paul O’Connell has told Ireland to steel themselves for one of their toughest physical tests yet when they meet South Africa in Dublin on Saturday.
The Six Nations Champions are unrecognisable from that title-winning side. Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement and Gordon D’Arcy’s recent calf injury means the Ireland team go from 212 combined centre caps to just three midfield appearances, with Jared Payne making his Test debut alongside Robbie Henshaw.
In fact, they show six changes from the starting line-up that closed out the Six Nations title with a 22-20 victory in Paris in March, with some 17 men missing through injury.
Against them on Saturday will be a Springbok side boosted by their 27-25 win over New Zealand last month, only the All Blacks’ second defeat since winning the World Cup on home soil in 2011.
O’Connell believes the South Africans are capable of results like that because the team has added another dimension to the already impressive outfit of recent years. “They are different in a better way, so many of the things they do I recognise from a few years ago,” said Munster’s 35-year-old lock. “They still have an excellent maul, they score numerous tries from that.
“They are very good at the back of the lineout and putting their centres and wingers into midfield, and putting teams under pressure that way. So you recognise that from the past, and they are still strong there.
“But the way they’ve been playing with ball in hand recently, I just think they’ve an extra string to their bow that they maybe didn’t have when they won the World Cup [in 2007], or they didn’t maybe use then or in 2009. So it makes the challenge even bigger again.”
If that isn’t enough to send shivers down Irish spines, O’Connell also believes South Africa have “the best lineout forward in the world” in Victor Matfield, the oldest Springbok of all time at 37. Matfield quit the game entirely after the 2011 World Cup, only to be enticed back.
“To be able to take two years out, come back and be as good as, if not better than, he ever was is an incredible achievement,” said O’Connell. “He still seems to be using pretty much the same system he has used for seven, eight, nine years, the same lineouts, and teams just can’t come near him on his ball.
“You see in that New Zealand game the amount of lineouts that South Africa upset all across the board, not just Victor Matfield, but [Duane] Vermeulen as well.
“I think it contributed massively to the result: if you can’t be sure of your own ball when you go to the touch, to start plays or exit from your half of the pitch, it’s a really tough way to play the game. I think it’s probably something South Africa have been missing in recent years, and he’s brought it back with abundance.
“He has a fantastic record as well, having beaten us on the Lions tour in 2009, having won a World Cup in 2007, his record in the Super 15, too, he’s a fantastic player.
Matfield praised O’Connell as “the best player I’ve played against” earlier this week, but the Irishman said that though he “was delighted with the compliment, it’s all irrelevant come the game”.
Elsewhere in Ireland’s depleted side, hooker Sean Cronin has stepped into the breach after Rory Best failed to beat a calf problem, while they must take on Heyneke Meyer’s side without injured prop trio Cian Healy, Marty Moore and Nathan White, though tighthead prop Mike Ross returns after missing a month through groin trouble.