Springboks v Ireland preview: Nuke Squad to blast defending ...

23 Sep 2023
Springboks vs Ireland

It’s the biggest pool stage match since the opening game of the 2023 Rugby World Cup as defending champions South Africa take on the world number one, Ireland.

It is the first time these two great rugby nations will face off at the global showpiece, with Ireland heading into the match off the back of a 15-game winning streak and the Springboks following impressive victories over New Zealand, Scotland and Romania.

The week leading to the clash has been dominated by the Springboks’ decision to select seven forwards and one backline player on the bench, with South Africa’s famed ‘Bomb Squad’ now being dubbed by many as the ‘Nuke Squad’. But Ireland have stuck to their guns and not veered away from the more conventional 5-3 bench split.

An epic battle awaits us as two world-class outfits collide at the rugby cathedral that is the Stade de France in Paris.

Where the game will be won

Both teams are well-tuned into their strengths heading into the fixture, and their matchday 23 selections highlight that. The Springboks are backing their power game with the additional forwards while Ireland look to continue their accurate execution in all facets of play.

While the team selections highlight the two sides’ strengths, it also shows us where the crucial battle will be: the breakdown. South Africa’s seven forwards on the bench show that they want to suffocate Ireland and win the game up front, but on closer inspection of the players included, Jacques Nienaber has revealed his game plan in the latter stages, attacking the breakdown.

Ireland have one of the most complex and well-drilled attacking patterns in world rugby, and they thrive on a ruck speed at 2-3 seconds. And they are brilliant at generating that, as they are the only team in the World Cup with less than three seconds per ruck on average.

To combat this and the fact that Ireland have scored 40 per cent of their points in the final quarter of matches, South Africa have selected three breakdown specialists on the bench in replacement hooker Deon Fourie and flankers Marco van Staden and Kwagga Smith.

The set-piece battle will be fierce, so will the kicking contest, but the gainline battle will decide this fixture, with both sides looking to nullify their opposition’s attack by slowing down the breakdown and forcing turnovers.

Last time they met

What they said

As mentioned above, the 7-1 split on the Springboks’ bench dominated the pre-match talk, but South Africa’s captain, Siya Kolisi, highlighted how crucial the clash is for the defending champions.

“I think this is as big as it gets,” he said.

“We are playing the number one team in the world in the World Cup; that is what you dream about as a child. They are an amazing side; they have won 14 in a row, so it’s going to take the best of us to beat them. I am looking forward to it, and I can see the excitement all around the world; everybody is keen for this game.”

Kolisi also reserved praise for his opposition skipper, Jonathan Sexton.

“I think he is a great leader for Ireland,” the flanker said.

“He is also an amazing player and an important player for them. You can see when he is there, they are a completely different team. Same for his club.

“I think he is a very special person for the Irish team and everything he has achieved, going to top points scorer, you can see what it meant.

“For him to be doing it at his age is remarkable. I would love to still be playing at 38, in a World Cup too. He is a huge player, you can see they take huge confidence from him.”


Johnny Sexton becomes Ireland's all-time leading points scorer! ????#RWC2023 #IREvTON pic.twitter.com/D0FSUEq0KK

— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) September 16, 2023

Sexton spoke equally as respectfully about this weekend’s opposition.

“We are playing the world champions, they are a very, very good team who have been coming into some great form over the last number of weeks, so we’re going to have to be on top form to get a result,” he said.

“Any time you play the Springboks, it is the same. They are a huge jersey in international rugby. But we are pretty proud of ours as well, and I’m sure it will be a great game.”

The fly-half added that his side would need to be at their best to get a result on Saturday in Paris.

“A top one on both sides of the ball,” he said when asked what kind of performance is needed.

“Their defence is obviously renowned for the line speed they come at you with, so we need to be on top of our game when we have the ball. Obviously, with the way they have been playing recently – going wide, wide and being direct in certain areas of the field, bringing a strong kicking game – they test you in every aspect of the game, and that is why we are going to have to be on top form.”

Players to watch

There is no shortage on talent throughout the two matchday 23s, but there will be a particular focus on the performance of Springboks hooker Bongi Mbonambi. The front-rower led his country against Romania and now has the added responsibility of being the only out-and-out number two in the Bok squad following the injury to Malcolm Marx. There is no denying Mbonambi’s quality, but he now looks set for extra minutes out on the park, having usually shared the 80 almost evenly with Marx.

Staying with the Springboks pack and Pieter-Steph du Toit looks to be back playing some of the best rugby of his career after a turbulent run of injuries and dips in form since winning the World Cup and being named World Player of the Year in 2019. The tireless blindside flanker has been sensational on attack and has the never-say-die engine of a Toyota Hilux.

???? Read like a book!

???? Happy birthday to Springbok veteran Pieter-Steph du Toit. pic.twitter.com/zPt00X1Zqj

— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) August 20, 2023

While the forwards have dominated the conversation for South Africa, there are still sensational talents in the backline. The likes of Manie Libbok, Cheslin Kolbe, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Damian Willlemse will give any defence headaches, but this weekend, the performance of Jesse Kriel will be crucial to the Boks’ success. The powerful centre is a brilliant and accurate defender in the outside centre channel and will be vital to cutting off and stifling Ireland’s most threatening attacks. He is handy on attack, too, with his strong carries, and will look to link with Damian de Allende to make the most of their stellar outside backs.

The set-piece battle cannot be forgotten, and on Saturday, Ireland’s powerhouse tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong fronts up against Steven Kitshoff in a box-office scrum tussle. The 30-year-old tighthead has been consistently solid for Ireland, particularly over the past 24 months and will look to take his performance up a few notches against the revered Bok pack.

Saturday’s match will see Peter O’Mahony earn his 100th Test cap (currently on 98 for Ireland, 1 for the Lions). The veteran back-rower will thrive in the occasion as he is never one to back down from a challenge and lives for the nitty-gritty and physical side of the game. His lineout work, both offensively and defensively, will be crucial to Ireland’s success, as will his ability at the breakdown.

There is arguably no player in better form at the Rugby World Cup than Ireland centre Bundee Aki. While Ireland have faced the two lower-ranked sides in their opening two pool matches, Aki has been a driving force and causing the destruction to opposition defences that makes a wrecking ball look ineffective. After two rounds of action, he topped the try-scoring count (4), made the most carries (39), beat the most defenders (18) and made the most metres (375) in the tournament. He faces his toughest task this weekend, going toe-to-toe with De Allende, but Aki has proven his quality repeatedly and will undoubtedly be a key man on Saturday.

???? Bundee Aki was in BEAST mode against Romania! #RWC2023 pic.twitter.com/OUiHIE6uMs

— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) September 12, 2023

Main head-to-head

Quite frankly, you could take your pick from any of the head-to-heads across the two starting line-ups and make a case as to which is the main one, further highlighting the incredible depth and quality that will be on show .

However, for us, the main event is in the number 10 jumpers, with Manie Libbok taking on Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.

???????????????????????????? Finn Russell is a magician… #RSAvSCO
???????? Manie Libbok: hold my beer. #RWC2023 pic.twitter.com/Rqv4RMiypI

— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) September 10, 2023

The two players are in completely different stages of their Test careers, with Libbok proving his credentials at the highest level while Sexton is in his swansong.

While the breakdown and set-pieces will certainly have a massive bearing on both playmakers’ performances, they are both game drivers and can flip the fixture on its head through their game management.

Their ability to apply scoreboard pressure will also be crucial with the Boks struggling in that department at the World Cup, as they boast the worst goal-kicking record at the tournament for teams who have attempted at least five kicks, slotting just 10/18 (55.6 per cent).


Ireland have won their two most recent encounters with the Springboks but history will matter little when the two sides cross the white lines on Saturday. It’s bound to be a closer encounter, much like their meeting in Dublin last year, and while Ireland have been fantastic over the past two years, we are predicting that South Africa will end their 15-game winning record and go top of Pool B and the world rankings claiming a five-point victory.

Previous results

2022: Ireland won 19-16 in Dublin
2017: Ireland won 38-3 in Dublin
2016: South Africa won 19-13 in Port Elizabeth
2016: South Africa won 32-26 in Johannesburg
2016: Ireland won 26-20 in Cape Town
2014: South Africa won 29-15 in Dublin
2012: South Africa won 16-12 in Dublin
2010: South Africa won 23-21 in Dublin
2009: Ireland won 15-10 in Dublin
2006: Ireland won 32-15 in Dublin

The teams

South Africa: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Jean Kleyn, 20 RG Snyman, 21 Marco van Staden, 22 Kwagga Smith, 23 Cobus Reinach

Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 Dan Sheehan, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Ryan Baird, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Jack Crowley, 23 Robbie Henshaw

Date: Saturday, September 23
Venue: Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Kick-off: 21:00 local (20:00 BST, 19:00 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)

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