Marseille performance just part of why Boks will find Ireland tough

rugby06 February 2024 07:06| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Henshaw © Gallo Images

The warning that was sounded around the world by Ireland in the opening Guinness Six Nations match should have reverberated particularly strongly with the Springbok management tasked with preparing their team for the series to be played in South Africa in July.

Their thumping 38-17 win in Marseille has made Ireland racing certainties to win their second consecutive Six Nations title and also consecutive Grand Slam, which will mean they will come to South Africa for the games to be played on 6 July in Pretoria and 13 July in Durban as the reigning European champions. The World Cup champions against the Six Nations and European champions - you can hardly think of a more blockbusting start for the Boks to this World Cup cycle.


As it is, Siya Kolisi’s team has a point to prove against the Irish. South Africa hasn’t beaten Ireland since the Boks clinched a close series on home soil with a narrow win in what was then Port Elizabeth in 2016. That was Allister Coetzee’s first series as Bok coach, and the memory of that series from a South African viewpoint was the ignominy of a first ever loss to Ireland on home soil.

That happened at Newlands in the first Bok game of that cycle, and even though the hosts recovered to win the next two games and take the series, that period will be remembered for how Ireland broke through a new frontier in their rugby history.

Of course, subsequent to that they’ve won a series in New Zealand, so it goes without saying that their trip to South Africa will represent a final frontier of sorts that needs crossing by the team in emerald green.

However, while their performance in Marseille last Friday underwrote the massive improvement that Ireland has made since they last visited South Africa as a national team, there have been a few other changes that may be no less significant in making them a tough obstacle for the reigning world champions.


Firstly there is the fact that coming to South Africa is becoming a much more frequent occurrence for Irish rugby players than it was eight years ago, when the trip to Johannesburg for the second test in particular would have taken them way out of their comfort zone.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see if Leinster, for the sake of the national interest, come to South Africa with a full strength squad when they tour here later on in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship season. They are set to play against the DHL Stormers in Cape Town and the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg at the end of April.

They haven’t come to South Africa with their top international players in the first two seasons of the URC because of the proximity of the tours to crunch Champions Cup games, but this year that isn’t the case. They’re also being pushed harder for top spot than they were in seasons past.

So the chances are they will come at full strength this time, and if they do it could be of massive benefit to Ireland’s chances of doing well in the test series as their tour will effectively be a dry run for that.

Johnny Sexton is gone but Leinster do still make up the core of the Ireland team. Of the 23 in the squad for Marseille, 16 players were from Leinster. And of the 15 starters, 10 were from Leinster - two thirds of the team.

And those players not from Leinster happen to be mostly from Munster and fill key positions - flyhalf Jack Crowley, skipper Peter O’Mahony, lock Tadgh Beirne and the new wing Calvin Nash, who is replacing Connacht’s injury Mack Hansen in the Six Nations.

Why that is significant is because Munster are well versed in not only playing in South Africa, but also winning in South Africa. In fact, they’ve won big in this country, with O’Mahony leading the Irish province to its first major title in many years in last year’s URC final in Cape Town. A few weeks before that Munster won a league game at the DHL Stadium and they also rallied well to come from behind to draw with the Sharks in Durban.


If some of the Leinster players haven’t been as often to South Africa, their Munster contingent will make up for it. Plus, before we forget, though it is completely unintended, the Bok World Cup winning coach Jacques Nienaber could also be an unseen but important influence on the series.

In his role as senior assistant coach at Leinster, Nienaber will be working closely with the Leinster players in the months between the end of the Six Nations and the beginning of the series and it is his job to make them better players. That naturally means they need to be trained to best the South African opponents they might face here in the URC or, if a local team gets that far, in the playoff phase of the Champions Cup.

Combine all of that with France’s performance in Marseille, and it is clear that the Boks will need the much talked about planned extra game against Wales in London the week before the series kicks off at Emirates Airlines Park.


There were mitigating factors in France’s performance and it was their first game without their captain Antoine Dupont, rated by most as the best rugby player in the world, due to the scrumhalf’s decision to be part of the French Sevens challenge at the Paris Olympics.

There were other French players missing too but none of that really detracts from the massive statement that Ireland made on a night that confirmed that while there is a lot wrong with modern rugby, such as the frequency of red cards, something that was again in evidence in this game, there is a lot of quality and entertainment at the sharp end of international rugby.

The top four teams in the game - South Africa, New Zealand, France and Ireland - between them produced what many regarded as the best international rugby matches of all time in the quarterfinal stage of last year’s Rugby World Cup. The Marseille game wasn’t quite up to the level of those two games, but it wasn’t too far off when it came to tempo and intensity, with both teams determined to make up for the disappointment of losing at the quarterfinal stage of a World Cup they were both expected to dominate.

The red card to France’s South African born lock Paul Willemse did see the hosts reduced to 14 men from the end of the first half, but the Irish were already leading 17-3 when Willemse’s second poor tackle turned a second yellow into an automatic red. Peter O’Mahony’s men were already sweeping aside the French with something amounting to contemptuous ease.


After a nervous start Crowley settled and then dazzled, and it may even be true that with him wearing the No 10, Ireland have more attacking options than they had with Sexton there. Time will tell of course, for it is way too early to make assumptions, but Crowley could not have asked for a better start. And Ireland could not have asked for a better start to this four year RWC cycle.

They showed that of the top two European rugby nations of the moment, it is they who have best rebounded from the hangover of what was ultimately regarded as World Cup failure. And it is Ireland who present themselves as the biggest threat to the southern nations, South Africa and New Zealand, who played in last year’s final.

Ireland will get their chance to go one further than what they managed in 2016 by actually winning the series this time, but one thing that we won’t see this time around is the Boks being complacent and maybe underestimating their opponents. Ireland have grown immeasurably since celebrating their solitary first win in South Africa and this time they will want more.