PARIS (AP) — France playing New Zealand to open the Rugby World Cup was a big deal.
Stade de France was packed and record numbers of eyeballs were drawn to European televisions, some audiences eclipsing the men's soccer World Cup.
That was a ranking matchup of No. 3 vs. No. 4.
Stade de France will be bursting again on Saturday night when No. 1 plays No. 2 in a much bigger deal.
Top-ranked Ireland and defending champion South Africa meet for the first time in Rugby World Cup history.
Officially, the result merely offers pole position in Pool B. Psychologically, the winner will amplify their credentials to win the tournament while the loser will suddenly have new doubts about its title chances.
South Africa has set its stall by choosing seven forwards among its eight reserves, a ploy it previously used to devastating effect against Rugby Championship winner New Zealand just before the tournament. The Springboks had the All Blacks cooked by halftime then swapped out their forward pack and turned a beating into a record-sized thrashing.
The Springboks aren't all about brute force. Their main improvement since the 2019 triumph has been in the backline, with a depth and ability to strike from deep that has layered extra caution on opposition defenses.
But the 7-1 split on the bench is significant. Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff replaced by Ox Nche and Trevor Nyakane. Eben Etzebeth by RG Snyman. The Springboks are plainly stating they believe they can bully Ireland up front.
It better work, because no team at the moment is better at changing the point of attack than Ireland.
Having one back in reserve opens South Africa to trouble if the backine suffers injuries. As good as Kwagga Smith's sevens rugby resume was, if he has to be plugged into the backline he won't have the connection that regulars would. Ireland is certain to come at the backs a little harder, and especially flyhalf Manie Libbok, the Springboks' least experienced back with 10 caps.
Libbok became the first-choice flyhalf only since July, and the Springboks have shrugged off his suspect goalkicking by saying he compensates with his attacking nous.
“The way Manie attacked, the way he took control of the team, he was a general, people forget that,” captain Siya Kolisi said after Libbok was man of the match in the convincing win over Scotland two weeks ago.
But Libbok isn't as important to South Africa as his counterpart Jonathan Sexton is to Ireland.
Sexton drives the Irish in every way. Even at age 38, older than Libbok by 12 years, the retiring captain is determined daily to improve, and pushes everyone else to. Questions about his rustiness after six months on the sidelines were erased quickly as he tallied 40 points in Ireland's first two Rugby World Cup matches from three tries, 11 conversions and one penalty and became the team's all-time leading point-scorer.
Ireland has been together longer than South Africa, bearing cohesion and confidence from a long spine of Leinster players — 11 in the starting 15. The strange thing is the standout players for Ireland in the tournament so far, apart from Sexton, have been the non-Leinster inserts: Bundee Aki, who leads the tournament with four tries and seven line breaks; feisty flanker Peter O'Mahony, who will mark his 100th test; unrelenting lock Tadhg Beirne; and slippery wing Mack Hansen.
They are on a national-record run of 15 wins since July last year, having swept every other top-10 team including South Africa 19-16 last November in Dublin.
That injury-filled match was still relevant. A 6-6 draw at halftime was blown open by Ireland with two tries in two minutes by Josh van der Flier and Hansen for 16-6. South Africa rallied but Sexton's third penalty made it 19-11 and safe — just.
South Africa's defeats in the last 18 months show its best to start fast and force the Springboks to spend energy catching up. Australia got out to 10-0 in Adelaide in August 2022, France made a 13-0 start in Paris last November, and New Zealand burst to 17-0 in Auckland in July.
Knowing South Africa will have a fresh new forward pack in the second half makes a good start by Ireland critical.
At the back of the mind, also, is the reward for victory and a probable quarterfinal matchup. The winner will likely meet New Zealand, which looks a much better alternative than France and its home crowd.
South Africa: Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe, Manie Libbok, Faf de Klerk; Jasper Wiese, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff. Reserves: Deon Fourie, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, Jean Kleyn, RG Snyman, Marco van Staden, Kwagga Smith, Cobus Reinach.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Tadhg Furlong, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter. Reserves: Dan Sheehan, Dave Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson, Ryan Baird, Conor Murray, Jack Crowley, Robbie Henshaw.
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby
The Associated Press