Ireland’s lead status to face challenge from South Africa in physical epic

Curious to know the game of the autumn? Look no further. There may be prettier matches that flow more freely, but if the crunch of a contest in the rarefied air of elite sport is your thing, Ireland against South Africa is about as crunchy as rugby gets at the moment.

Ireland are the No 1 side in the world, all swagger and muscle after their historic series win in New Zealand over the summer, while South Africa are, well, all muscle. And they’re the world champions. No 1 against the world champions, would-be kings against kings – Amazon Prime have commissioned serial epics on less.

In some ways, it is a shame such a set-piece battle takes place on the first weekend proper of the autumn series, when lines might be a little out of sync, but the hordes of the Aviva will be ecstatic to see their heroes on their return from New Zealand. The plot has thickened further with the introduction of South Africa’s best provincial teams to the United Rugby Championship, which is what the Celtic League of many years ago has evolved to become. There might be the hint of a derby to weave into that rarefied air, this being the first time these two have met since.

Not that many of the Springboks have seen much action in the URC. They finished the Rugby Championship (not the United one) only at the end of September, pipped to first place by New Zealand, so there has been limited opportunity in the handful of weekends between then and departure for this tour of Europe. Nevertheless, the top four of the URC currently reads: Leinster, Ulster, Bulls, Stormers (the latter two South African). These two nations dominate there as well.

But it is Leinster who sit at the top of the URC, with seven wins from seven. Until the South African heavies joined last season, they had won four titles in a row – and their exploits in Europe over the years are even more legendary. They are, give or take in Saturday’s case five players, basically the Ireland team.

Andy Farrell makes three changes from the side that beat the All Blacks in the third Test in July. Conor Murray will win his 100th Ireland cap at scrum-half, replacing Jamison Gibson-Park, who drops to the bench, having not played since that glorious day in Wellington. Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey replaces the suspended Bundee Aki (whose initial replacement, Robbie Henshaw, has a hamstring problem), but the most interesting selection is that of Robert Baloucoune, the Ulster winger who comes in for James Lowe.

Baloucoune missed the New Zealand tour with a hip injury, but there are high hopes for him. If there is to be any air in which to breathe on the Lansdowne Road, it will be found on the wide outside. Both sides pick back threes of rare pace and derring-do, notable departures from the typical thunder of the modern game.

South Africa bring in Kurt-Lee Arendse on the wing, which means everybody’s favourite player, Cheslin Kolbe, will return after a broken jaw to the Springboks’ starting lineup at full-back. Both are rare examples of the elite rugby player under 13 stone. Both could bring a much-cherished change of pace to the script.

But there is no doubt where the tone will be set. For all that they may have slipped from the top of the game in recent months, the South Africans present a front five that still sends a shiver down the spine. And Ireland did not win a series in New Zealand by shirking a physical challenge. The ferocity of the exchanges up front will, as ever, define the contest and go some way to determining the winner.

The other area so crucial to the plot of any rugby match is half-back.

Ireland roll out one of the most storied pairings of all in Murray and Johnny Sexton, 33 and 37 years of age respectively, 99 Ireland caps and 108. And therein lies one last plotline. The chasm between Sexton and the next Irish fly-half remains yawning. He will be 38 come the next World Cup.

Every Amazon epic needs a gnarled hero defying all pretenders, not the least of which is Time. There will be much to relish in Dublin on primetime Saturday night.