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The Breakdown | Ireland and South Africa should be mates but have rugby’s hottest rivalry
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The Breakdown | Ireland and South Africa should be mates but have rugby’s hottest rivalry

No sooner had Ireland claimed a 13-8 win over South Africa in the Rugby World Cup last year – an epic tussle in a tournament littered with all-time encounters – a thumping rendition of the Cranberries’ Zombie rang out around Stade de France. The song’s connections with the Troubles, the IRA and Ireland’s struggle for peace was lost on most South African fans that sweaty Saturday night in Paris. Their primary reaction to Ireland’s adopted anthem was rage.

“What’s in your heeeeaad, in your heeeeeeeaaaaad!” It was hard for them not to feel this was meant as a jibe; that the Irish, who have never seen their players lift the sport’s most glittering trophy, who had never even seen them reach the semi-finals of a World Cup, were rubbing South African noses in their success. That their No 1-ranked team had wormed their way into the subconscious of every South African by relegating the Boks to a stepping stone on their march to glory. The face of Rassie Erasmus, South African rugby’s god-king, said it all. He was seething. What was a friendly rivalry had now become personal.

“Rassie hates the Irish, he really, really doesn’t like us,” said Simon Zebo, the Ireland and Munster wing, on the Kick Offs and Kick Ons podcast recently. South Africa’s totemic lock, Eben Etzebeth, as well as the team’s rampaging centre, Damian de Allende, both added to the rancorous discourse. The former suggested that Ireland’s players were arrogant after their World Cup victory and the latter said next month’s meeting between the sides will be “almost like a war”.

How did it come to this? South Africans and their Irish counterparts should be best mates. Ireland is the only country in the European Union that allows South African passport holders to enter without a visa. Irish politicians were among the first to oppose apartheid in South Africa. While still in prison and on the UK’s terrorist watchlist in 1988, Nelson Mandela was awarded the Freedom of the City of Dublin. In March this year, Ireland’s was the first government to back South Africa’s case of genocide against Israel at the international court of justice.

On the pitch this relationship has often felt like a sideshow to more important fixtures. With their shared history under British imperialism, both sets of supporters have an antipathy towards the Red Rose, and an All Black scalp has always been the top prize. Otherwise they exist in different spheres, coming together on rare occasions at opposite ends of their respective seasons.

Things took a turn in 2004 when, 20 minutes into their clash at Lansdowne Road, referee Paul Honiss told the South Africa captain John Smit to speak to his players about persistent breakdown infringements. Smit followed orders but with his players huddled behind their try-line they were out of position to stop Ronan O’Gara who tapped, dummied and slid over for a decisive try in a 17-12 win.

That was Ireland’s first win over South Africa in 39 years and marked a change in the power dynamic. Since this perceived injustice, one that still sticks in the throat of many Bok supporters, Ireland have won seven of 11 Tests. Their 26-20 win in Cape Town in 2016 – the first game of the disastrous Allister Coetzee era that preceded Erasmus’s reign – was Ireland’s first on South African soil.

Eben Etzebeth of South Africa at the bottom of a ruck.View image in fullscreen

South Africa’s involvement in European club rugby has added an extra layer of intrigue, another sensitive pressure point. Since the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions jettisoned their traditional partners in the southern hemisphere to form the United Rugby Championship in 2021 with clubs in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy, the South Africans have dominated. The competition’s inaugural final was an all-South African affair with the Stormers of Cape Town edging the Bulls from Pretoria after both teams beat Irish opposition in the semi-finals. The Stormers would host the final again a year later, losing to Munster. Next week the Bulls host Glasgow Warriors in Pretoria in the showpiece match after dispatching a Leinster side stacked with Irish internationals. Factor in the Sharks’ triumph in the Challenge Cup and you get an image of burly Saffas elbowing their way on to a table booked under a different name.

This relationship has been mutually beneficial. Seven South African-born players have represented Ireland, including Jean Kleyn, who was a surprise pick for the 2019 World Cup. There was equal surprise when Andy Farrell ignored Kleyn’s domestic form for Munster by omitting him from the 2023 squad. Sensing an opportunity, Erasmus offered Kleyn a lifeline and the two-metre-tall second row was part of South Africa’s Bomb Squad in the final against New Zealand.

There are South Africans playing for every Irish province with Leinster now coached by Jacques Nienaber, the mastermind behind the Springboks’ rush defence. He has been blamed for Leinster’s lack of attacking cohesion in the post-Johnny Sexton era which has flamed the enmity between supporters. Even Zombie has changed hands with South Africans now chanting the song at every opportunity. They’ve replaced Zombie in the chorus with “Rassie”, forcing his image into the heads of those who’d rather not think about the divisive coach. Two Tests – in Pretoria on 6 July and Durban a week later – won’t settle the score. If anything it will exacerbate what is quickly becoming rugby’s hottest rivalry.

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Source: theguardian.com