Ireland kick-off their GUINNESS series against a weakened South Africa side on Saturday, but they have various injury concerns to contend with themselves.
Reasons to back Ireland
In a game that could be decided up front, Richardt Strauss will earn his first cap having recently qualified for Ireland on residency grounds, and takes his place in an all Leinster front-row between Cian Healy and Mike Ross. A double Heineken Cup champion alongside many of his Irish teammates, there is no doubt Strauss will make a useful addition to the starting XV, and having the club familiarity could stand Ireland in good stead up front.
In a backline featuring Simon Zebo at fullback, Jonathan Sexton will again hold the key to unlocking the Springbok defence. A British & Irish Lion in waiting, Sexton was rumoured to be amongst those considered to stand in as captain, and whilst Kidney opted for Heaslip on this occasion, Sexton’s role is no less pivotal to a positive outcome for Ireland.
Meanwhile, the Springboks approach this autumn series with injury problems of their own. Star winger Bryan Habana is amongst as many as fourteen frontline players unavailable for this tour, with young fly-half Johan Goosen also sidelined just as he was starting to get the Boks firing. However, there remains more than enough test experience in the squad to turn over Ireland and a healthy youthful exuberance which should thrive on the Aviva atmosphere.
Reasons to back South Africa
Already without Brian O’Driscoll, Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris, Rob Kearney and Rory Best for the duration of this autumn series, Ireland suffered a further setback with the withdrawal of Paul O’Connell on Wednesday due to a recurring back problem. In his absence Jamie Heaslip will captain the side for the first time, whilst Mike McCarthy comes into the starting XV that has caused some consternation amongst Ireland fans this week.
For South Africa, Eben Etzebeth is one to watch, and gives the Boks the edge in the second row. Continuing a proud tradition of powerful locks to wear the Springbok jersey, Etzebeth was outstanding earlier this year as the ‘Baby Boks’ won the under-20s World Cup in South Africa, and has been quick to make an impact on the senior international stage.
Pat Lambie starts at fly-half, significantly partnered by Ulster half-back Ruan Pienaar, and the local knowledge will help the away side unlock the Irish defence. And with Ireland fielding a team without a recognised full-back, Pienaar will undoubtedly look to test the Irish back three with some typically exploitative kicks into any space vacated by Zebo.
Prediction: South Africa by 8
By David Blair @viscount_dave