Ireland’s Andy Farrell calls South Africa’s controversial 7:1 bench split ‘irrelevant’

Andy Farrell during an Ireland rugby media conference at the Paxton Spa Hotel Paris in Paris, France
Andy Farrell says the Bok's selection is 'a great talking point' - Getty Images/Brendan Moran

It may have divided opinion amongst pundits, but Andy Farrell says he “loves” South Africa’s aggressive 7:1 bench split for Saturday’s blockbuster Pool B clash in Paris, describing it as a “great” talking point and a demonstration of the confidence the world champions have in their squad and their gameplan.

However, the Ireland head coach insisted South Africa’s selection was “irrelevant” as far as Ireland were concerned and “changed nothing” in his own planning.

The Englishman, speaking from Ireland’s team hotel on the outskirts of Paris, to which they have decamped from their base in Tours for this weekend’s encounter, added defiantly that while the the rest of the world might have South Africa down as favourites for the game, that was “not how Ireland were thinking”. “We’re ready for a tough battle,” he said.

Farrell has stuck with a traditional 5:3 split of forwards and backs on his bench, making just one change to his starting XV for Saturday’s match at the Stade de France from the team that beat Tonga last weekend.

First-choice scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park returns in place of Conor Murray. But Ireland’s starting XV is otherwise unchanged, with Ronan Kelleher retaining his place at hooker ahead of Dan Sheehan, who returns from injury to make the bench.

Jamison Gibson-Park during an Ireland rugby squad training session at Complexe de la Chambrerie in Tours, France
Jamison Gibson-Park returns to Ireland's XV - Getty Images/Brendan Moran

The bench, specifically South Africa’s bench, has proved by far the biggest talking point in the build-up to Saturday’s clash. The Boks, whose fabled ‘Bomb Squad’ of replacement forwards are feared by world rugby, have already experimented for a while with a 6-2 split on the bench. But they trialled a 7-1 split for the first time in their warm-up thrashing of the All Blacks at Twickenham last month, reportedly as specific preparation for the Ireland game. And sure enough, head coach Jacques Nienaber has repeated the trick for this weekend.

It has not gone down well everywhere. While some admire South Africa for accepting the risks involved and backing their forwards to make the desired impact, others have criticised the move, for how it could shape the game in the future, or for what having seven fresh forwards to call on against tired bodies might mean in terms of player safety.

Former Scotland coach Matt Williams described it as “smart” but “not morally correct” insisting it would lead to injuries at lower levels.

“Some player will become a quadriplegic,” Williams told Virgin Media. “It won’t be on the front page, it won’t be on the newspapers. It will just be his club, community, family, and him or her that has to deal with it for the rest of their lives.”

Williams’ words were given short shrift by Nienaber on Thursday with the South Africa coach saying it would be a sad day if World Rugby legislated against innovation. But the criticism has perhaps got under the skin of the Boks, with director of rugby Rassie Erasmus taking aim at Williams on Twitter.

Farrell tried not to get involved in the debate himself, beyond saying he enjoyed the gauntlet being thrown down.

“I love it,” he said. “I respect it. I like the fact that they know their squad. They’ve brought four scrum halves over and a hooker [Deon Fourie] that’s not really played in a specialist position before. But it shows that they know their players. They know their team. And they know which direction they’re going to go in.”

He added, joking: “I did pose the question to our forwards coaches, would we do a 7:1 split with seven backs and one forward? But they wouldn’t do it.”

“But no, it doesn’t really bother me at all. It’s just about us. I think everyone else thinks that they’re the favourites and they’re going to win this game. And I can see why because of the form that they’ve shown in the last couple of games but we don’t think like that. We’re ready for a tough battle and it will take its own course, I’m sure.”

Farrell added that with two wins in the bank and Scotland still to come, the game was not “do-or-die”. But he admitted that psychologically it was huge with Ireland, the world No1 ranked team, on a run of 15 wins in a row. South Africa will replace them as world No 1 should they win.

“It’s not a must-win,” the Englishman said. “It’s not a do or die type of game but it’s pretty important to both teams, let’s put it that way. It’s a big game. There will be over 30,000 Irish supporters there in a stadium we know well and we want to get back there and get back to winning ways there.”