Talking points as top-ranked Ireland take on world champions South Africa

Ireland launch their autumn campaign by taking on world champions South Africa at a sold-out Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

Andy Farrell’s in-form hosts have risen to the top of the world rankings on the back of their summer series win in New Zealand.

Here, the PA news agency picks out some of the main talking points ahead of Saturday evening’s showdown with the Springboks.

World number one versus world champions

South Africa are the reigning world champions
South Africa are the reigning world champions (David Davies/PA)

Ireland top the global rankings on the back of 14 wins from their last 16 fixtures. Captain Johnny Sexton this week talked down the significance of that achievement and said his side must lift the World Cup to truly be regarded as the world’s best.

South Africa have done that on three occasions and are the current holders of the Webb Ellis Cup following glory in Japan in 2019. The respective statuses of the two countries adds an extra edge to what is already expected to be a pulsating contest. The Springboks will replace the Irish as the world’s top-ranked side with victory.

Milestone for Murray

Conor Murray has been a cornerstone of Ireland’s squad for more than a decade. The scrum-half is set to become only the eighth Irish Test centurion after being handed just a second start since the 2021 Six Nations.

Head coach Farrell this week hailed Murray as a “legend of Irish rugby”. Yet the 33-year-old’s opportunities to influence on-field matters have dwindled during the past year. Jamison Gibson-Park, who is on the bench following injury, has emerged as Farrell’s undisputed first-choice number nine.

While the visit of the Springboks is certain to be an unforgettable evening for Murray, he must produce in order to snatch back the starting jersey on a permanent basis.

World Cup warm-up

Ireland's last meeting with South Africa was a 38-3 win in 2017
Ireland’s last meeting with South Africa was a 38-3 win in 2017 (Brian Lawless/PA)

Having not met for five years, Ireland and South Africa are set to face off twice in less than a year. This weekend’s game serves a dress rehearsal for the 2023 World Cup.

Although players and coaches have been keen to stress the importance of the here and now, next year’s pool stage meeting in Paris is very much in the minds of both camps, with each eager to lay down a marker.

Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber described the encounter as a “vital clash” in preparation for the tournament in France, while Irish skipper Sexton said the bigger picture remains a “driving factor”.

Power of the packs

Farrell and Nienaber have each opted for continuity by naming unchanged forward packs for what promises to be a bruising encounter. The physical challenge is expected to be unlike anything else Ireland have faced during the Farrell era.

South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus famously referred to the Irish team as “softies” in 2019 but was this week full of praise for how they have since developed an extra layer of toughness.

With the Springboks bringing their ‘bomb squad’ by going with a six-two split on the bench, Ireland’s supposed improvement in that department will be heavily tested.

All eyes on Baloucoune and Kolbe

Robert Baloucoune scored against the United States on his international debut
Robert Baloucoune scored against the United States on his international debut (Donall Farmer/PA)

Among the backs, much of the attention will be on jet-heeled pair Robert Baloucoune and Cheslin Kolbe.

Baloucoune’s patience has been rewarded with the biggest game of his career. The Ulster wing was twice capped in 2021 but was then overlooked for the duration of this year’s Six Nations before a torn hip tendon ruled him out of the summer tour triumph over the All Blacks.

Kolbe, meanwhile, returns from a broken jaw in unfamiliar territory. The Springboks star, who normally operates on the wing, will make his first Test start at full-back. He has played the position at club level but the bold selection has raised a few eyebrows.