Mission impossible for Ireland at the end of the longest season
Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30
Three hundred and sixty two days later, Ireland's season will finally come to an end in Port Elizabeth on June 25.
When they came into camp on June 29 last year, the Six Nations champions were looking forward to a World Cup that was full of possibilities, Joe Schmidt could do no wrong and Johnny Sexton was back in harness. Life was good.
Of the 45 players who assembled in Carton House last summer, 23 won't be involved in the next three weeks. Eleven are injured, three are retired and the others have not been selected. Schmidt's popularity is not as bulletproof as it was 12 months ago too, even if the rage that greets his every selection is overdone.
The gloom that followed the World Cup exit to Argentina has hung over Irish rugby for most of a season that has been saved by the Connacht story. Yet, for all his praise for the western province outwardly, Schmidt's selections still hint at a lack of trust in the players who have secured the Guinness Pro12 title.
Pat Lam's attacking outlook has also cast Ireland's game-plan in cold light and, while fans largely accepted conservatism when Ireland were winning titles, they demand more when results turn for the worse.
That all came to a head when Schmidt largely went for players from Leinster in head-to-heads with their Connacht counterparts when naming his squad on the Wednesday before the Pro12 final. That Saturday, Matt Healy, Tiernan O'Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun ran riot at Murrayfield and their performance must have had the head coach shifting uncomfortably.
Fate intervened and, days after justifying the selections of Dave and Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald, all three were ruled out meaning Healy, O'Halloran and Ulster flier Craig Gilroy made the plane in the end. That was all very interesting, but the other injury suffered during Leinster's 20-10 defeat undermines the whole excursion.
News that Sexton would miss out after damaging his shoulder means that Ireland go into a big Test under Schmidt without their talisman for just the second time. The last was against the Argentinians.
Sexton joins front-liners Sean O'Brien, Cian Healy, Peter O'Mahony and Tommy Bowe on the sidelines and suddenly a tour that offered the prospect of a first win over the Springboks on South African soil looks more like a development opportunity.
The saving grace for Schmidt is that he faces a new coach in Allister Coetzee who is using his first set of internationals to blood new players.
The Springboks also have problems in the out-half department as Handré Pollard misses out altogether and Elton Jantjes is struggling for fitness.
Coetzee is picking his squad against the backdrop of the continuing 'transformation' plans that mean he is tasked with selectiong a team that is made up of 50pc black players by the 2019 World Cup.
The response to his first squad selection has been largely positive and, while he has brought in new faces, there is one thing that remains constant about South African teams regardless; their size.
It may not be pretty, but they will hope to beat Ireland up around the fringes and while they may be lacking in recognisable faces, there is plenty of quality.
For Schmidt, the fact this is Coetzee's first game in charge represents a strange challenge. Normally he finds chinks in opponent's armour in the analysis room, the New Zealander has nothing to work with here.
Instead, he must find strengths in his own new-look dressing-room and despite the high-profile absentees, he still has plenty to work with.
The first Test looks like Ireland's best opportunity to spring a shock and, if they are able to get a result, it opens up possibilities and at least keeps the rest of the series relevant no matter what happens in Johannesburg on Saturday week.
At the end of such a long season, it's in no one's interest to have a dead-rubber in Port Elizabeth in week three.
That brings back memories of Hamilton and the 60-0 defeat that was the beginning of the end of Declan Kidney's reign.
Captain Rory Best is one of eight survivors from that humiliating loss to the All Blacks and he believes that his side are better prepared physically as a result of the provinces' early European exits.
"Putting myself in the same position four years ago, you felt like you were hanging on by a thread to go to New Zealand whereas there is a lot more energy, a lot more enthusiasm," the Ulsterman said.
"Look, I know we've picked a few injuries but, in terms of enthusiasm and energy, there is a real want to go and do something special, there's a real drive to go and do that."
If Ireland were to do something special, then it will be one of their head coach's greatest achievements.
During the Six Nations, he managed to keep his side competitive despite key absentees and, without Sexton, faces an even tougher task.
Giving Paddy Jackson three frontline Tests will lessen the blow the next time Sexton goes down with an injury.
This is the first half of a big year for Schmidt who will decide if his future rests with Ireland after the three Tests. He will have to be conscious of the length of the season when demanding the requisite intensity and it will be important to keep the players fresh off the field over the course of the three weeks, while the dynamic between the head coach, his powerful new assistant Andy Farrell and the rest of the established coaching team will be fascinating.
New Zealand lie in wait come November and this is a chance to trial new combinations and build confidence. It looks like three games too many at the end of the season, a series win seems unrealistic, a Test victory a remote prospect.
If Ireland return home after three competitive performances and no significant injuries, then they'll have done OK.
Ireland (probable v South Africa): R Henshaw; A Trimble, J Payne, L Marshall, K Earls; P Jackson, C Murrray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), M Ross; I Henderson, D Toner; CJ Stander, R Ruddock, J Heaslip. Reps: R Strauss, F Bealham, T Furlong, U Dillane, J Murphy, K Marmion, I Madigan, S Olding.