Featured Friday: Springboks v Ireland: The Pundits’ Five Key Players


Rory Best has looked confident in getting good results in South Africa, but the reality of the challenge seems far greater than the confidence instilled in his troops. Ireland’s disappointing World Cup campaign was derailed by injury and many, including myself, believed they could go as far as the Final and it seemed that Rory Best’s boys carried this form into their Six Nations campaign. Ultimately, they only managed to beat Italy and Scotland – a statistic none of the Irish are happy to recall.

The Springboks might have managed to reach the semi finals after their upset loss against Japan, but the World Cup is long gone and unlike the Irish, the Boks are yet to come together as a unit. New coach Allister Coetzee introduced six players that weren’t in the World Cup mix, five of them representing the Lions, arguably South Africa’s most inform side. Bongi Mbonambi, the promising Stormers hooker, making up the sixth addition.


The new-look Springbok team will grow towards a new style of Springbok rugby, but the battle on a wet Newlands ground promises to be an exciting one for fans who cannot wait to see this much-changed team in action. Ultimately, the battle will be won and lost upfront with Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira resuming a battle that commenced back in 2009, facing Irishman Mike Ross yet again. There will be many players to keep your eyes on, but these are the five that might just be the most influential on the day.

CJ Stander

The South African, deemed too small for Springbok rugby, made his Irish debut earlier this year against the Welsh. A man of the match performance saw him announce his presence, a presence that remained evident throughout their entire Six Nations campaign. There’s a certain beauty in his return to South Africa and given the circumstances under which he made the decision to represent Ireland, he’ll sure be looking for vindication. I suspect a monster game from the ex-Bulls player.

Patrick Lambie

One of the golden prospects of South African rugby had to make a spectacular comeback, yet again, after an untimely injury in one of the Sharks’ preseason encounters. Since his return he’s been Mr Consistency, commanding his troops with ease and grace. Had in-form flyhalf Elton Jantjies not been injured (and subsequently passed a late fitness test on Thursday), Lambie wouldn’t necessarily had been first choice. Given the situation, there really isn’t an argument for not starting the 50-cap-strong stalwart, but Janjies isn’t far behind and Lambie will know he has to control the game or potentially have to sit on the bench in future.

Frans Malherbe

Irish prop, Jack McGrath, already relishes the opportunity to take on the Springboks. It will however come down to his battle with Frans Malherbe. It’s an old rugby cliché but a team is as strong as it’s tight head and since making his debut against Welshman Gethin Jenkins, Malherbe has proven to be a valuable asset for the Springboks. Jack McGrath does however seem to have obtained a little more experience given his prominence in the Irish side and one wonders if this won’t be the most telling battle on the day.

Lionel Mapoe

Outside centre has been a position that has been difficult to fill for South Africa, but those days are seemingly over with the in-form Lionel Mapoe, finally making his starting debut. Mapoe has not only been (in my opinion) one of the best South African centres in Super Rugby, but also one of the best South African players, more often than not only outshone by team mates Jaco Kriel and Ruan Combrinck. He is, however, the only one of the three selected in the match day squad and I’m sure he’ll make both the Lions and the country proud.

Faf De Klerk

The services of South African greats Fourie Du Preez and Ruan Pienaar might not be available anymore, but South African rugby have an exciting new face debuting come Saturday. The Lions scrumhalf have been a critical cog in the Joburg side’s machine, linking well with Elton Jantjies to set in motion some of the best attacking rugby we’ve seen a South African side play in years. We all know how talented the Nelspruit-born player is, but given the wet conditions in Cape Town, he might not have the optimum conditions for a dream debut. It will be interesting to see if the coach provides De Klerk with a platform to fully express himself and his style of play.

These five players could end up making, or breaking the test match – I very much look forward to seeing how it all pans out. With me living in Dublin now, this match has an even bigger significance than it would have otherwise.

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