Preview: South Africa v Ireland

Few people expected the third Test between the Springboks and Ireland in Port Elizabeth to be a series decider. But it's going to be a lot more than that.

In a dramatic turnaround, even fewer people expected the series to still be on the line this weekend when the Boks headed for changing rooms 19 points adrift at the interval in Jo'burg last weekend.

Indeed, after most had predicted a series whitewash in favour of the hosts at the start of the month, the writing looked to be on the wall for South Africa midway through the second Test.

The Boks had been outplayed in Cape Town and had replied with a dismal first 40 minutes on the Highveld. While the fightback at Ellis Park was certainly impressive – and exciting – it's probably fair to say that without the altitude factor, Allister Coetzee's men could very well have fallen short, despite the extra spark provided by a few hometown boys off the bench.

This weekend there will be no thin air to sap the strength from the Irish tourists but Coetzee will hope that the momentum gained from that comeback, plus an extra week in camp, will be enough to definitively turn the tide in South Africa's favour.

The plain truth is that Ireland have played smarter rugby and – perhaps more importantly – have executed almost everything they've done better.

A few horrific stats stand out: The Boks have made three times as many handling errors as the Irish and contrived to cough up a massive 19 turnovers, while forcing just three the other way.  

It's all made for a perfect recipe for Joe Schmidt's team to dig in on defence and wait for the counter-attacking opportunities, which they've cashed in on, in ruthlessly clinical fashion. 

The Boks have made 100 carries more than Ireland, but the lack of return for their effort is not only a reflection of their poor technique, but their apparent misguided ambition of how to use their possession. The penalties, too, have been flowing thick and fast.   

Forgive me for focussing mainly on the home side. I do so because Ireland have proven consistent enough for the result to hinge on whether South Africa can and get the basics of the game right, and play some pragmatic rugby.

What Coetzee has been telling the media at press conferences in terms of the game plan has not been replicated on the pitch. In fact, exactly what style the Boks are aiming at is still unclear. 

Ireland's tour must already be considered a success, especially considering their long injury list. A series win would not only be an historical first but, along with England's success in Australia, would constitute a massive milestone in the northern hemisphere's quest to close the gap with the southern giants.

For Coetzee and his new coaching staff, a series loss would be nothing short of a disaster. All the pressure will be firmly on the shoulders of the Boks. Their ability to rise to the occasion will go a long way towards setting the tone for the rest of the current four-year cycle.

Players to watch:

South Africa:  Ellis Park heroes Warren Whiteley and Ruan Combrinck will make their starting debuts for the Springboks. Whiteley replaces the injured Duane Vermeulen, whose hulking physicality will be missed by the Boks. Whiteley, along with Lions team-mate Jaco Kriel, who will be making his debut off the bench, must show that they can do more than inject pace, but can dominate at the gainline and the breakdown. Combrinck's addition was a no-brainer after his stellar performance last week. While fans will be eager to see him turn on the gas with ball in hand, it's his big right boot that might prove the most valuable to the Boks and he complements the left-footed half-backs. His kicking strength could prove vital in the territory battle, and from the tee from long range. 

Ireland: Ireland will welcome back first-choice blindside flanker CJ Stander, who has served his one-week suspension after his red card at Newlands. Obviously the South African-born loose forward will want to stay on the pitch a bit longer this time and his partnership with Jordi Murphy, who has also been recalled to the starting back row, will be crucial in what is set to be a battle of attrition. Connacht full-back Tiernan O’Halloran will make his first Test start – after a three minute debut off the bench last Saturday – in the absence of the injured Jared Payne. The way Ireland organise their back three is significantly different to Connacht and O’Halloran has admitted it required a big effort to get "the hang of it." With South Africa likely to do more kicking, O’Halloran is sure to be a target and will be tested under pressure.  

Head-to-head: We chose the captains as a key battle for the first Test, but the roles of the respective hookers seem even more important now. While Rory Best has been hailed for the smart way Ireland controlled the game, despite being a man down in Cape Town, Adriaan Strauss has come in for massive criticism over the past two weeks with fans calling for the captain to be more forceful in leading his troops. Coetzee has backed his captain though, highlighting Strauss's contribution at the set piece and in ball carrying. With some much at stake on Saturday, both men's ability to squeeze the best out of their team-mates will be in the spotlight. 

Previous results:

2016: South Africa won 32-26 in Johannesburg
2016: Ireland won 26-20 in Cape Town
2014: Ireland won 29-15 in Dublin
2012: South Africa won 16-12 in Dublin
2010: South Africa won 23-21 in Dublin
2009: Ireland won 15-10 in Dublin
2006: Ireland won 32-15 in Dublin
2004: Ireland won 17-12 in Dublin
2004: South Africa won 26-17 in Cape Town

Prediction: While the Springboks were pretty dismal for the first 120 minutes of the series, that second half in Jo'burg suggests things are beginning to click. The loss of Payne is another blow that Ireland could not afford, so it seems reasonable to back South Africa to win by six points.  

The teams:

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Julian Redelinghuys, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Morne Steyn, 23 Lwazi Mvovo

Ireland: 15 Tieran O’Halloran, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Luke Marshall,12 Stuart Olding, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Finley Bealham, 18 Tadgh Furlong, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Matt Healy.

Date: Saturday, June 25
Venue: Nelson Mandela Bay Stadiumn, Port Elizabeth
Kick-off: 17:00 local (15:00 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Television match official: Rowan Kitt (England)

by Ross Hastie