Depleted Ireland hard-pressed for 1st win in South Africa
Even with the Springboks under a new coach, a new captain, and pressure from their own government, Ireland will still be hard-pressed for a first test win in South Africa because of the absence of a string of regulars.
Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton will probably be the biggest miss for a depleted Ireland in the three-match series starting Saturday in Cape Town, but the absence of Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo will also be felt.
Paddy Jackson will play at No. 10 in place of Sexton in the first test, his first start since a Rugby World Cup warmup last year. Coach Joe Schmidt broke up the center partnership of Jared Hayne and Robbie Henshaw, with Hayne having to switch to fullback. The pack is fairly settled under captain and hooker Rory Best.
While Jackson will carry the responsibility of being Ireland's playmaker, the pre-series attention has landed on South Africa-born flanker CJ Stander, who returns to his country of birth to face former teammates, having once been rated as a future prospect for the Springboks.
Stander is one of three South Africa-born players in Ireland's tour group, although hooker Richardt Strauss and lock Quinn Roux didn't make the match 23 for the opening test at Newlands. Stander, a strong, ball-carrying loose forward, has a mission along with No. 8 Jamie Heaslip to get the Irish on the front foot against the big South African forwards.
''He plays with his heart on his sleeve and is a real leader,'' Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby said of Stander. ''He'll be emotional at the weekend along with Quinn and Richardt. They are guys that are very passionate about where they were brought up but hugely passionate about wearing the (Ireland) green jersey.''
With Richardt Strauss out of the 23, it removes the possibility of him coming up against his cousin in the front row, Boks hooker Adriaan Strauss, South Africa's new captain.
The Springboks play under Adriaan Strauss and coach Allister Coetzee for the first time, and are facing post-World Cup transition without Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, and Jean de Villiers, all retired, and the Du Plessis brothers in the front row, unavailable after moving to play in France.
Coetzee's appointment in April was accompanied by an expectation that South Africa's rugby team would change in another way and give more opportunities to non-white players, a long-running issue that was brought to the forefront when the sports ministry this year announced sanctions against the South African Rugby Union for not meeting ''transformation'' targets.
Coetzee, who is black, selected six non-white players in his first starting 15, and 10 in the 23, a sign of change for the Springboks on that front.
Although scrumhalf Faf de Klerk is the only new cap in the starting lineup, there are new combinations: Lionel Mapoe and Damian De Allende in the centers, Pat Lambie gets a go as first-choice flyhalf outside De Klerk, and flanker Siya Kolisi earns a first test start.
''We've worked extremely hard these past two weeks to become a team,'' Coetzee said.
Not everyone in South Africa is united over the national rugby team, though: The ANC Youth League, the youth league for the country's ruling party, planned to stage protests at the South Africa-Ireland games over the Springboks' lack of progress in bringing through non-white players. Those plans were canceled after the youth league and the South African Rugby Union met on Wednesday.