South Africa were trounced 38-3 the last time they played Ireland at Lansdowne Road in 2017 but five years later arrive as world champions taking on the number one ranked team in the world
Dublin (AFP) - Ireland, the number one ranked team in the world, take on South Africa the World Cup holders in what should be an epic Autumn international Test on Saturday at Lansdowne Road.
Adding spice to an already intriguing encounter in Dublin is the fact that they are both in the same pool at the Rugby World Cup which is less than a year away.
AFP Sports picks out three things which could prove pivotal on Saturday:
Sexton v Willemse – The Sorcerer and the Apprentice
South Africa's Damian Willemse's talent is not in doubt but in being picked at fly-half a position he has rarely played in at Test level he will come up against one of the legendary playmakers Ireland captain Johnny Sexton
The battle at fly-half will be a fascinating tussle between Ireland’s iconic playmaker Johnny Sexton and the utility back Damian Willemse.
The 24-year-old Springbok is 13 years younger than Sexton, but the Irish captain has over 100 caps at fly-half whilst Willemse can count the number of times he has played in the position at Test level on one hand.
Willemse has been called upon due to World Cup winning fly-half Handre Pollard being injured and Elton Jantjes is lacking in game time and battling personal problems.
Willemse certainly caught the eye with his performances at fly-half in away wins over Australia and Argentina in the Rugby Championship.
Sexton is nobody’s fool and unlike many, whose eyebrows were raised over Willemse’s selection in such a pivotal role, he sees no reason why he cannot shine.
“He’s unpredictable,” said Sexton on Tuesday.
“He’s got fantastic footwork, he has a good kicking game, he’s strong, he’s fast obviously.
“Some traits that you wouldn’t normally associate with a 10 but he’s an excellent player.”
The Erasmus factor
South African Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus pre-match tub-thumping rhetoric has been missed by the Springboks but he should be in full flow on Saturday prior to the Ireland Test which is also his 50th birthday
This will be the first match Springbok Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus can attend since his ban from attending Test matches for making disparaging remarks about the referee in the first Test with the British & Irish Lions last year came to an end.
Whilst he side-stepped an invitation to open up about what he had learned from the ban on Wednesday – save a regretful “as the guys got on the bus to go to the match I went back to my hotel room” – he made no secret of his enthusiasm for being back.
It is the changing room where he could make a huge difference with a pre-match tub-thumping speech. Fiery, where head coach Jacques Nienaber is more mild-mannered, the charismatic former backrow forward can add that extra bit of fire in the bellies of the players.
The Irish need no reminder of what his speeches are like. Erasmus referred to them as “softies” compared to the Welsh in a pre-World Cup semi-final speech against Wales – the Springboks won the match.
Erasmus believes the Irish have a harder edge about them now under Andy Farrell but he will hope his rhetoric gives his players the cutting edge and a perfect 50th birthday present.
Murray’s second coming
Irish scrum-half Conor Murray will become the eighth Irishman to reach the 100 cap milestone on Saturday against the South Africans but more important to him is he gets the chance to reclaim the first choice spot he held for over a decade
“This is called living properly, there is no better time to be an Irish rugby player,” said Andy Farrell.
Coming off a historic series win in New Zealand against the All Blacks and facing the world champions few would argue with the Ireland head coach and former English rugby league superstar.
No one more so than Conor Murray.
The 33-year-old has watched from the bench as Jamison Gibson-Park has lifted the mantle of first choice scrum-half from his shoulders after over a decade.
In that time he formed one of the most feared half-back Test partnerships with Johnny Sexton.
However, on Saturday the Munster stalwart will lead the team out onto the pitch as he wins his 100th cap.
The eighth Irishman to reach the 100 caps milestone Murray gets his chance to prove he deserves to be number one again as Gibson-Park has not played since the series-clinching Test win over the All Blacks.
Gibson-Park, though, is on the bench.
“He is a tough old character and he is steely strong mentally,” said Farrell of Murray.
Farrell admitted he had had a “couple of conversations” with Murray once Gibson-Park became a regular starter.
However, he denied once Gibson-Park had some playing time under his belt he would be back as first choice.
“In regard to Jamison taking over, that’s never the case with anyone.”