Andy Farrell has left his Ireland players under no illusions about the privileged position they have reached in Test rugby and on the eve of a momentous weekend he has invited them to breathe it all in and cherish the moment.
The Ireland head coach revealed his hand for Saturday's clash at a sold-out Aviva Stadium, when his top-ranked team will meet world champions South Africa for the first time in five years, less than 24 hours after Ireland A go up against an All Blacks XV at the RDS tonight.
“Honestly it doesn’t get any bigger,” Farrell said yesterday. “I have said this to the players. This is called living properly, there is no better time to be an Irish rugby player. Meeting the New Zealand XV on Friday night and performing for the group and then backing up the next day with the other lads. It doesn’t really get any better.
“When the Springboks are in town, everyone gets super excited. And we know what is coming, everyone else knows what is coming, which is why everyone else like yourself is super excited.”
With the Springboks unveiling a strong team of battle-hardened, been-there-done-that world beaters for the opening game of their season-ending European tour, Farrell followed suit with 12 of the players who closed out a historic series win against the All Blacks in New Zealand in July with the second of back-to-back victories in the third Test in Wellington.
An unchanged forward pack will take on the might of the South Africans up front while the backline sees three changes from the Sky Stadium selection four months ago. Wing Robert Baloucoune replacing the injured James Lowe in the back three having missed the summer tour due to injury, Garry Ringrose returns at outside centre having missed the final Test following a concussion the previous week in Dunedin to replace the suspended Bundee Aki, and Conor Murray returns to number nine for the first time since last November having been Jamison Gibson-Park’s back-up for the whole of 2021-22.
As excited as Farrell is about the match-up with the Springboks, he was also mindful of a parallel anticipation within the Irish camp for what lies beyond with games against Fiji and Australia to follow on successive Saturdays. To the Ireland players, each represents a golden opportunity and a night to remember.
“I suppose we will play this game and for whoever is picked the week after that will be the biggest game. Because for you guys and for the public this is, wow, this is as big as it gets and we 100 per cent get that.
“But I promise you, next week for whoever takes the field that will be their biggest game as well. The week after that will be the biggest game again because they are under the spotlight the whole time they know they are going to be judged so therefore the feelings are pretty similar. But having said that there is no doubt there is going to be an extra edge on Saturday night.”
All three matches this month offer something for Farrell to look forward to as he continues his team’s journey towards next September’s World Cup pool campaign in France. Ireland have been on an upward curve since midway through the 2021 Six Nations, beaten just twice, at Stade de France and Eden Park, in a 15-Test run that has seen them regain top spot in the World Rugby rankings.
South Africa represents the next great examination of their credentials, just as a Test series and two tour matches against the Maori All Blacks in a three-week shift in New Zealand was given similar billing. Farrell describe that as “the ultimate test” for his players and meetings the Springboks in Dublin just the same he said yesterday when asked how he would describe tomorrow’s match.
“The ultimate test, because it’s the next one, isn’t it? From my mind, looking forward, playing South Africa, who we’ve not played for five years, Fiji, a completely different style of rugby, and Australia, who we’ve not played in such a long time (since the 2018 tour), it actually couldn’t get any better as far as experiences are concerned for us.
“Because what we’re going to experience in a year’s time, that’s what we’re going to meet, different styles week-in, week-out. You’ve got to be able to adapt, adjust and understand it and be at your best on the back of it. That’s why this autumn is fantastic for us.”