The Star Early Edition

Half­backs

- MIKE GREENAWAY

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.

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