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Springbok captain Siya Kolisi. Picture: NWU
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi. Picture: NWU

The views of Ireland’s Bundee Aki in a postmatch interview after 2023’s World Cup pool match in Paris are worth noting as, less than nine months after their most frustrating performance of the tournament, the Springboks prepare to host the No 2-ranked team in Pretoria.

Speaking after his team sneaked home 13-8 after holding off a concerted but error-ridden Bok team in an intense, physical game that rivalled the best we saw at the World Cup, Aki spoke with a degree of certainty about what he expected to be a final against a team he clearly had huge respect for.

It didn’t turn out that way and in terms of where they stand, much has changed for both teams in the intervening period. Ireland surrendered their winning run, which stood at 16 after they beat the Boks, to the All Blacks, and have subsequently also lost to England in the Six Nations. They also surrendered their No 1 ranking, with the Boks now owning it after retaining the Webb Ellis trophy.

Which only ups the ante for the two teams and makes the next fortnight particularly interesting — as Aki intimated, a huge rivalry has developed between the sides.

As is stated on the television advert now being flighted to promote the series, the Boks feel like they have one more point to prove. They need to avenge that solitary RWC loss, and haven’t beaten Ireland since 2016. And the Ireland players wouldn’t be human if they didn’t have a burning desire to prove that, despite the World Cup result, they are a better team than the champions. A victory at Loftus would prove that.

That the series that concludes in Durban a week after the Pretoria game is shaping up as an extension of the World Cup is helped by the likely continuity in selection we should see for Saturday. The Bok team shouldn’t differ much from the one that lost by five points, and neither should that of Ireland.

Poor conditioning

Damian Willemse and Steven Kitshoff are unavailable to the hosts due to injury and Jasper Wiese to suspension, and Deon Fourie and Jean Kleyn are two reserves from that night who are also on the injured list.

Otherwise, with Siya Kolisi having proved to coach Rassie Erasmus that the rumours emanating from France of his poor conditioning were just that and hence he is retained as leader, most of the other 18 players who did duty then should be in the match 23 in Pretoria.

That may change in time as Erasmus will be well aware of the need to refresh going forward, but for now the only position that can’t be predicted without a degree of certainty is flyhalf, where on the fast surface of the highveld venue we might well see Manie Libbok return as the starting pivot ahead of the man who displaced him for the global final, Handré Pollard.

This selection might tell us a lot about the Boks’ plans and where they might be looking to evolve. They have a new attack coach in Tony Brown who is sure to love the X-factor of Libbok. The Stormers player established himself as a world-class international flyhalf in 2023, the only question mark, and of course it is a significant one, hovers over his placekicking.

Erasmus might be prepared to gamble on that, as he was for most of 2023 and well into the World Cup. He will have Pollard to bring on later in the game if clutch kicks are needed, as was the case and was done successfully in the two playoff wins that got the Boks into the final. Libbok would probably have featured in the squad for that final were it not for the inclement weather that was predicted.

Libbok isn’t as reliable a wet weather player as Pollard is but he could be lethal on the fast Loftus surface. There might also be a decision for Erasmus to make at wing if there is any uncertainty over the fitness of Cheslin Kolbe. Makazole Mapimpi or newcomer Edwill van der Merwe are the alternatives.

Evan Roos in at No 8 for Wiese and Willie le Roux for Willemse would be my only other changes to the team that lost so agonisingly in Paris.

Ireland have just four players that played the Boks last time not available for Loftus, but their changes will be more significant as they are going to have to do without what was a very influential halfback pairing. Jamison Gibson-Park is injured and not on tour while Johnny Sexton has retired.

There will be two more changes at the back, because the excellent fullback Hugo Keenan is playing Sevens and Mack Hansen is injured. All the forwards have come on tour. The experienced Jack Conan was unavailable as he stayed home to be at the birth of his first child, but the loose-forward never played in Paris.

The relatively unchanged teams can only add edge to the occasion as memories will be fresh and there will be a feeling among those players that they have unfinished business.

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