The Star Early Edition
There are not too many rugby players in history who can say they have gone unbeaten in three of their last four Tests against the All Blacks. That is the boast of Ireland’s Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, and when you put the two of them alongside each other in the vital halfback combination, it adds up to serious danger for the opposition.
Scrumhalf Murray and flyhalf Sexton orchestrated Ireland’s famous victory over New Zealand in Chicago last November, their country’s only win over the All Blacks in 111 years, and the duo were at the helm of the Lions side that won the second Test against the All Blacks in June. Not surprisingly, they started the third Test that ended in a 15-15 draw and a levelled series.
The Springboks hardly need to do any extra homework to know what to expect from the highly experienced and decorated combination. Murray’s box kicking is pin-point and he put the All Blacks’ back three under immense pressure.
Sexton is also a gifted kicker and regularly turned the Kiwis with precision punts into open space.
If it is raining in Dublin on Saturday, the Boks will know that the aerial bombardment will duly escalate.
But neither player is shy of spreading the ball and they have exceptional handling skills.
Murray has 55 caps for Ireland and Sexton 66, and many of their caps will have been in tandem with each other.The strongly built Murray (94kg and 1.88m) is also a menace around the fringes of the rucks and has scored 10 tries for his country, including four against the All Blacks, a record for a northern hemisphere player.
If the Ireland 9-10 axis is rock solid and world renowned, the Springbok equivalent on Saturday is best described as work in progress, whether it is Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies (likely) or Cronje and Handre Pollard (a possibility), or even Rudy Paige and Pollard or Paige and Jantjies (unlikely).
Coach Allister Coetzee will surely stick with the Lions pair given that he spoke last week about the need for consistency. He will also not want to deviate from the starting 15 and bench that came so close to beating the All Blacks at Newlands in the Boks’ last outing. He will make changes to that team only where circumstance forces his hand.
Cronje has just six caps for his county and has started just one Test overseas (in Perth) and has precious little experience of playing in the Northern Hemisphere. The courageous scrumhalf has given the Boks rhythm on attack this year but has occasionally been found wanting, especially his box kicking. The 28-year-old’s lively game is tailor-made for fast fields but he is unlikely to get that kind of surface in Dublin. Cronje and Jantjies did a number of very good things in that 24-25 defeat to the All Blacks but individually and as a combination they were singled out for criticism, some of it warranted.
Jantjies has long been accused of blowing hot and cold on the international stage — it seems to go with the territory for the 27-year-old flyhalf — and this tour could go a long way to shutting up his detractors once and for all.
However you look at it, Ireland are likely to field an immaculate 9-10 combination in Murray and Sexton, and they are on their home turf, while their immediate Springbok opposition is going to have step up and deliver games of their lives.In rugby you find your generals at 9 and 10, and this vital area of the game is where it could be won and lost in Dublin on Saturday.