Rugby World Cup 2023 kicked off on 8 September with a fixture that could easily have made a final. Three Saturdays later, the sporting festival continues with a match that could easily be the final, as the defending champions and second-ranked team in the world meet the one side above them in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini. And we’re still in the pool stage.
Eleven players who started Ireland’s 19-16 win over South Africa last time out in Dublin in November 2022 start at Stade de France, including Peter O’Mahony, who will bring up a century of test caps following his 98 caps for Ireland and one for the British and Irish Lions, and Bundee Aki, who will win his 50th cap.
Meanwhile, Springboks’ head coach Jacques Nienaber has made 13 changes of personnel and one positional switch from the team that beat Romania 76-0 on Sunday. Hooker Mbongeni Mbonambi is the only player to wear the same jersey, while Damian Willemse reverts to full-back with Manie Libbok playing fly-half.
The slimmest of margins – just 0.15 points – separate the two unbeaten sides heading into this titanic Pool B encounter at Stade de France. But with the race for the quarter-finals heating up – and rivals Scotland waiting for an opening – neither will want to slip up in Saint-Denis. This is about as good as it gets.
FIXTURE: South Africa v Ireland
GROUND: Stade de France (82,023)
KICK-OFF: 21:00 local time (GMT+2)
Remarkably, this is the two sides’ first meeting at a Rugby World Cup – but their rivalry extends all the way back to 1906, when an Irish side hosted South African tourists in Belfast.
South Africa won 15 of the first 16 matches between the two sides over a 98-year period to 2004. Since then, however, results have shifted in Ireland’s favour. They have won seven of the 10 most recent matches – including the last two, in Dublin, in November 2017 and 2022.
The Springboks’ last victory over Ireland was at the end of June 2016, as they clinched a three-test series two-one with a 19-13 win in Port Elizabeth.
They resisted wave after wave of Irish attacks as the clock ticked down – including a 21-phase assault with four minutes remaining, followed by another period of threatening Irish possession before the final whistle.
KEY TALKING POINT
The two top sides in the world are going head to head in a Rugby World Cup match for the first time – there are more talking points than there are atoms in the universe, before even mentioning South Africa’s 7-1 bench split. But let’s talk about kits…
South Africa will wear a ‘third’ kit to avoid a clash with Ireland under World Rugby’s initiative to make the match more accessible to the estimated one in 12 males and one in 200 females who have colour vision deficiency (CVD). That’s a lot of people for whom watching rugby has suddenly become a whole lot easier.
Eben Etzebeth v Tadhg Beirne. There are so many mouth-watering one-on-one match-ups all over the park at Stade de France that it should be illegal to single out just one. But this one, in the second row, will be a barnstormer. Then again, so will Willemse v Keenan; Kriel and de Allende v Ringrose and Aki; de Klerk v Gibson-Park; Kitshoff v Furlong … and the rest of them.
South Africa’s Bryan Habana equalled the late, great Jonah Lomu’s record of 15 tries in the men’s tournament when he completed a hat-trick in a 64-0 win over USA at RWC 2015. For the record, Black Ferns’ Portia Woodman-Wickliffe has 20.
Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand). Now 34, O’Keeffe was the youngest referee at Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, where he took charge of three pool games.
SOUTH AFRICA Damian Willemse; Kurt-Lee Arendse, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe; Manie Libbok, Faf de Klerk; Steven Kitshoff, Mbongeni Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe; Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert; Siya Kolisi (captain), Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Jasper Wiese
Replacements: Deon Fourie, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, Jean Kleyn, RG Snyman, Marco van Staden, Kwagga Smith, Cobus Reinach
IRELAND Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan; Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris
Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Dave Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson, Ryan Baird, Conor Murray, Jack Crowley, Robbie Henshaw