IRELAND are preparing for this weekend's showdown against the Springboks with something of a crisis on their hands. Injuries to key players and experienced leaders has left the team looking a touch decimated and rudderless.
As a contact sport, injuries are always going to be a prevalent part of the game of rugby. Most players will admit that they rarely take to the field without some form of niggly injury. The longer you play the game the more these niggles get at you as the wear and tear of tackles and scrums take their toll. Since reaching my thirties I seem to be hell bent on putting Mr Nurofen and Mrs Difene's kids through college, my kit bag looking more and more like a mini chemist each season.
This weekend Ireland will be without Brian O'Driscoll (ankle surgery), Rory Best (neck), Rob Kearney (back) and now Stephen Ferris (ankle). Paul O'Connell is back training but still not a certainty when going to print. Losing this much experience and talent would hurt any team but with Ireland's lack of strength in depth it's delving into crisis mode.
First and foremost, a suitable captain has to be found if O'Connell doesn't make it this weekend. Declan Kidney is being his typical cryptic self with regard to who he has in mind as he stated in a recent press conference:
"It's easy to just announce somebody, to ask a guy to carry it. I rarely go up to a guy and say 'will you just captain the side?', because it is another load on him and first and foremost you want to make sure that he's comfortable with it. We've a few lads that could step in."
From that it could be anyone but it seems to be that the two front running candidates are from Leinster in the shape of Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip.
I'm never a huge fan making an outhalf captain. I think that the position itself carries so much pressure as play maker and goal kicker that to lump on further responsibilities is too much.
Sexton is a still a relatively young player and is liable to the odd outburst that you can't get away with as a leader.
His inspirational half time speech and subsequent performance in the Heineken Cup final 2011 against Northampton to turn that game around gave us a glimpse of what he's made of. A possible captain for the future perhaps?
For the present my money's on Heaslip. He has deputised for Leo Cullen at Leinster on a number of occasions and was unbeaten on all of them. He has a relatively cool head under pressure and, since his red card against New Zealand for kneeing serial off side merchant Richie McCaw in the head in 2010, has had a very good disciplinary record.
While I'm not privy to what goes on behind the scenes in the international set up he does seem to have the respect of his fellow players as well.
A shuffle of the deck will also be on the cards (pardon the pun), especially with the backline sans O'Driscoll and Kearney.
We could invariably see a winger playing centre (Earls), a centre playing wing (McFadden) and a winger playing fullback (Bowe). If I had to select the team (and thank God I don't have to drink from that particular poisoned chalice), I would probably stick Bowe in the centre and move Earls to full back as he probably gives us the best counter attack option without a specialist fullback (the solid yet unspectacular Denis Hurley will probably be resigned to bag holding duties).
It'd be great to see the exciting Craig Gilroy in the mix with Simon Zebo on the wings but as a late addition to the Autumn squad he probably won't feature. Murray will start at scrum half due to Kidney's penchant for splitting up provincial half back pairings, just to keep them on their toes perhaps?
Strauss will probably get the nod at hooker for better or worse (I won't discuss his heritage any further) with Cronin as back up. The props pick themselves but I'd love to see David Kilcoyne get into the match day 22 and have a crack at the Boks.
Donncha O'Callaghan will come in for O'Connell should he fail his fitness test with Ulster's in form utility back rower Chris Henry slotting in for the injury prone Ferris.
It really is unfortunate that Ireland aren't at their strongest as it's a great time to meet the Springboks who have their own concerns to think about ahead of this game.
They're travelling without 13 of their frontline players through various injuries and club commitments.
Without the likes of Habana, Spies, Brussow, Burger and Du Plessis the Boks would certainly be there for the taking but in our current shape it'll be a tough ask.
With a heavy heart I'm predicting a South African win but with a bit of luck it'll be a close one!