Ireland host South Africa in Dublin on Saturday looking to kick-start their autumn Test series with victory in a doubtless bruising encounter.
Here, Press Association Sport examines five talking points ahead of the Aviva Stadium clash.
New Zealand-born centre Bundee Aki makes Ireland debut
Connacht’s bullish centre Aki has thrilled the Galway crowd in his three years in the west of Ireland. Now he has qualified for Ireland on residency, the 27-year-old of Samoan parentage has been thrust straight into head coach Joe Schmidt’s side. One commentator has hit out, again, at World Rugby’s residency qualification rule, but that is little more than a sideshow. As soon as Aki busts the line in tandem with former Connacht team-mate Robbie Henshaw, any fuss surrounding his qualification will evaporate.
Hooker Rory Best can lay down a marker for the 2019 World Cup captaincy
Best confirmed on Friday that Schmidt has told him he will captain Ireland for the full length of this season. After that, the taskmaster Kiwi boss will reassess Ireland’s leadership options for the campaign leading into the next World Cup. Best will be 37 by the time the next global gathering convenes in Japan, and Ireland have only ever capped one player at that age, John Hayes. Ulster stalwart Best already boasts 104 caps, and led Ireland to their maiden victory over New Zealand, in Chicago last November. But he must keep proving his long-term form and fitness in order to fight for the 2019 captaincy.
Darren Sweetnam can make good on his long-term switch from hurling
Sweetnam starred as a teenager for Cork’s hurling outfit, before eventually switching full-time to rugby with Munster. The 24-year-old winger is primed for his Test debut off the bench this weekend, and his cross-sport skills have always left him an aerial threat. In any side boasting Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, Ireland always crave back-three stars to chase and retrieve high bombs. Expect Sweetnam to impress in this discipline, and also with ball in hand, when he joins the fray.
Ulster prodigy Jacob Stockdale can cement his Test future
Former Ireland Under-20s star Stockdale is fast making good on his rich potential and the 21-year-old can propel himself up Schmidt’s squad’s ranks this weekend. His power, pace and natural finishing mark Stockdale out as a future regular. Captain Best was quick to warn against expecting too much too soon from the Lisburn native, but Ireland are right to be positive about his career to come.
The spectre of the 2023 World Cup bidding process will underpin a feisty battle
Ireland and South Africa have spent the week stalking the corridors of power in a bid to inch forward their respective bids to host World Cup 2023. South Africa were installed as the preferred bidders, which led Ireland to write to World Rugby to raise objections to that process. All of which will doubtless leave the administrators on either side of Saturday’s coin offering up a somewhat frosty air. Whether that translates to the players is another matter, but no doubt the blazers will watch on with just a touch extra bite.