DURBAN - There are not too many rugby players in history that can say that they have gone unbeaten in three of their last four Tests against the All Blacks.
That is the boast of Ireland’s Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, and when you put the two of them alongside each other in the vital halfback combination, it adds up to serious danger for the opposition.
Scrumhalf Murray and flyhalf Sexton orchestrated Ireland’s famous victory over New Zealand in Chicago last year, their country’s only win over the All Blacks in 111 years, and the duo were at it again against the Kiwis when they were at the helm of the British and Irish Lions team that won the second Test against the All Blacks in June.
Not surprisingly, they started the dramatic third Test that ended in a 15-15 draw and a levelled series.
The Springboks hardly need to do any extra homework to know what to expect from the highly experienced and decorated combination. Murray’s box kicking is pin-point and he put the All Blacks’ back three under immense pressure in that riveting series.
Sexton is also a gifted kicker and he regularly turned the Kiwis with his precision punts into open space.
If it is raining in Dublin on Saturday, the Boks will know that the aerial bombardment will duly escalate. But neither player is shy of spreading the ball and they have exceptional handling skills.
Murray has 55 caps for Ireland and Sexton 66, and many of their caps will have been in tandem with each other.
It is one of the most respected and dangerous halfback combinations in world rugby, particularly when Ireland are playing in Dublin in front of 52 000 frantic fans at the Aviva Stadium.
The strongly built Murray (94kg and 1.88m) is also a menace around the fringes of the rucks and has scored 10 tries for his country, including four against the All Blacks, a record for a northern-hemisphere player.
Sexton, one of the game’s best goal kickers, has accumulated a mammoth 612 points for his country. If the Ireland No 9-10 axis is rock solid and world renowned, the Bok equivalent on Saturday is best described as a work in progress, whether it is Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies (likely) or Cronje and Handre Pollard (a possibility), or even Rudy Paige and Pollard or Paige and Jantjies (neither of those likely).
Coach Allister Coetzee will surely stick with the Lions pair, given that he spoke last week about the need for consistency. He will also not want to deviate from the starting 15 and bench that came so close to beating the All Blacks at Newlands in the Boks’ last outing. He will make changes to that team only where circumstances force his hand (such as the unavailability of inside centre Jan Serfontein and injury to flank Jean-Luc du Preez).
Cronje has just six caps for his county, started one Test overseas (in Perth) and has precious little experience of playing in the northern hemisphere. The courageous scrumhalf has given the Boks rhythm on attack this year but has occasionally been found wanting with his kicking game, especially his box kicking. The 28-year-old’s lively game is tailor-made for fast fields, but he is unlikely to get that kind of surface in Dublin. Cronje and Jantjies did a number of very good things in that 25-24 defeat to the All Blacks, but individually and as a combination they were singled out for criticism, some of it warranted, some of it not.
Jantjies has long been accused of blowing hot and cold on the international stage - it seems to go with the territory for the 27-year-old flyhalf - and this tour could go a long way to shutting up his detractors once and for all, or giving them further voice.
However you look at it, Ireland are likely to field an immaculate No 9-10 combination in Murray and Sexton, and they are on home turf, while the Boks are going to have to step up and deliver games of their lives in unfamiliar territory. In rugby you find your generals at No 9 and 10, and this vital area of the game is where it could be won and lost in Dublin on Saturday.