Ireland v South Africa, Croke Park, November 28
Big names set for Croke Park re-match
November 27, 2009
British & Irish Lions captain Paul O'Connell tackles South Africa's Bakkies Botha during the 2nd Test clash in Pretoria earlier this year © Getty Images
Ireland and South Africa will go toe-to-toe at Croke Park on Saturday with the Six Nations and Tri-Nations champions battling for unofficial title of the world's best team.
Ireland's march to Six Nations Grand Slam glory earlier this year was due reward for Declan Kidney's side while South Africa cemented their status as one of the greatest sides ever with a dominant run of form on their way to the Southern Hemisphere crown.
In between these two achievements the leading protagonists from both sides squared up during an enthralling series between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions. Although both these sides can rightly lay claim to being the best in their respective regions, it is the emotional and physical scars from those brutal matches in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg that will serve as inspiration for many of the players this weekend and those same memories will whet the appetite of the fans.
Since sweeping New Zealand and Australia to one side, the Springboks have struggled to maintain their momentum and enter their final clash of the year under pressure to reassert themselves on the global stage. Defeat for their second-string against Premiership side Leicester in their tour opener at Welford Road was a major upset and appeared to set the tone for their trip. France were the next team to get the better of the tourists with a well-deserved victory in Toulouse and there was more woe awaiting the Boks at Wembley where they fell to another club English club side - albeit laden with South Africans - in Saracens.
Peter de Villiers' side returned to form with a comfortable victory over Italy in Udine last weekend but his understandably weary squad need another against the Irish if they are to prevent a glorious year being tarnished yet further.
Win, lose or draw, this year will go down as one of the greats for Irish rugby having already encompassed Munster's Magners League success, Leinster's Heineken Cup glory, Ireland A's Churchill Cup win and an Irish-dominated Lions squad pushing the Springboks to the limit. But Kidney's charges remain hungry and a share of the spoils against Australia and a rampant display against Fiji underlined their desire to reach even greater heights.
Perhaps the greatest indicator that Kidney and co have no intention of resting on their laurels is the selection of rising star Jonny Sexton at fly-half in favour of veteran Ronan O'Gara. The 24-year-old Leinster pivot only made his Test debut last weekend but his provincial prowess has seen him usurp his more experienced rival for the eagerly-awaited Dublin clash.
The bulk of the side that snatched a draw with the Wallabies returns for their final hit-out of the year but fresh impetus comes from Keith Earls who benefits from the injury to winger Luke Fitzgerald. Loose-head Cian Healy is another who appears to be finding his feet on the biggest stage but his second cap will bring with it a step up in class in the form of the Boks' front row.
Paddy Wallace returns to partner newly-anointed centurion Brian O'Driscoll in the centre while scrum-half Tomas O'Leary will form a new halfback pairing with Sexton. Donncha O'Callaghan is back in the second row while David Wallace, who was not involved against Fiji, returns at openside flanker. In total, 10 of Ireland' starting line-up saw action on the Lions' tour while another two - O'Leary and hooker Jerry Flannery - saw their dreams of playing nit he famous red jersey shattered by injury before they had boarded the plane.
The contest up front, and particularly at scrum time, is likely to go a long way to deciding the clash and De Villiers' on-going concerns about rulings around the set-piece resulted in a meeting with IRB referees boss Paddy O'Brien earlier this week.
In search of the forward dominance that has been the bedrock of much of their success this year, and perhaps as a result of the meeting with O'Brien, De Villiers has re-jigged his front row. Captain John Smit anchors the front row at hooker for the first time since the clash with England a year ago while Tendai Mtawarira has been recalled at loose-head with BJ Botha packing down at tight-head.
The significant presence of lock Victor Matfield returns to the second row to partner Bakkies Botha while Wynand Olivier comes in for the injured Adi Jacobs at inside centre. An experienced bench features hooker Bismarck du Plessis and prop CJ van der Linde - both of whom are returning from injury - and Irish-based centre Jean de Villiers while flanker Dewald Potgieter is in line for his Test debut having skippered the midweek side against Saracens.
The Springboks' series with the Lions was noted for its physical nature and this match is shaping up as another brutal encounter. Ireland's leading stars will relish the opportunity to settle a few scores and may smell blood with the tourists seemingly showing the signs of a gruelling year. But this proud South African side are not bracketed amongst the greats without reason and are unlikely concede even a yard without a fight.
Ireland: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Brian O'Driscoll (UCD/Leinster) (capt), Paddy Wallace (Ballymena/Ulster), Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster); Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Tomas O'Leary (Dolphin/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Jerry Flannery, (Shannon/Munster), John Hayes (Bruff/Munster), Donncha O'Callaghan (Cork Constitution/Munster), Paul O'Connell (Young Munster/Munster), Stephen Ferris (Dungannon/Ulster), David Wallace (Garryowen/Munster), Jamie Heaslip (Naas/Leinster)
Replacements: Sean Cronin (Buccaneers/Connacht), Tony Buckley (Shannon/Munster), Leo Cullen (Blackrock College/Leinster), Denis Leamy (Cork Constitution/Munster), Peter Stringer (Shannon/Munster), Ronan O'Gara (Cork Constitution/Munster), Gordon D'Arcy (Lansdowne/Leinster)
South Africa: Zane Kirchner (Blue Bulls); JP Pietersen (Sharks), Jaque Fourie (Lions), Wynand Olivier (Blue Bulls), Bryan Habana (Blue Bulls); Morne Steyn (Blue Bulls), Fourie du Preez (Blue Bulls); Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks), John Smit (Sharks) (capt), BJ Botha (Ulster), Andries Bekker (Western Province), Victor Matfield (Blue Bulls), Heinrich Brussow (Cheetahs), Schalk Burger (Western Province), Danie Rossouw (Blue Bulls)
Replacements: Bismarck du Plessis (Sharks), CJ van der Linde (Leinster), Francois Hougaard (Blue Bulls), Jean Deysel (Sharks), Dewald Potgieter (Blue Bulls), Ruan Pienaar (Sharks), Jean de Villiers (Munster)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wal)
Assistant referees: Chris White (Eng), Carlo Damasco (ita),