'We've played less this season' - Joe Schmidt dismisses burnout fears ahead of Boks clash
Head coach Joe Schmidt has dismissed fears of his players suffering burnout as he prepares his Ireland side for their 15th Test of the season.
When their three-game tour of South Africa concludes in Port Elizabeth on June 25, the squad members who played at the World Cup will have been on the go for almost a calendar year, but Schmidt revealed that most of his front-liners have actually played less this season than last.
Ireland touched down in Cape Town on Monday without leading players like Sean O'Brien, Cian Healy, Tommy Bowe, Peter O'Mahony, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and, crucially, Johnny Sexton and there are doubts about their ability to perform after such an arduous season.
However, the exit of the three provinces involved in the European Champions Cup at the pool stages means the players' workload in recent weeks has been managed.
While Schmidt concedes that the World Cup season has been a long one, he is relishing the opportunity to broaden his squad with Connacht pair Tiernan O'Halloran and Matt Healy the prime examples.
"From my perspective, our game minutes are down this year so our players have actually played a little bit less this year compared to last year," he said.
"It's a World Cup year - any year post-World Cup, I agree, that season is long.
"By the time you take the pre-season, the four warm-up Test matches, and as soon as you're playing matches at a high level, they're more attritional mentally as well as physically because you've got to really extend yourself because you know your opponent is at a very high level.
"From that perspective, it is tough. From the coaches perspective, we're incredibly excited about the opportunity this gives us.
"If there are guys missing, I'm going to know more about Tiernan O'Halloran, more about Matt Healy in a week-to-week environment.
"I've been down to Connacht. I've seen them train. I've certainly seen them play a lot of times.
"But you get to know a player more and you see him slot in and you say, 'there's the level, here it is now, how will he go? Gee, you're coping really well'.
"That's another stride you can take, so this is a really good opportunity for us.
"One of the things a lot of people reference is the depth of our playing pool. I think this is a really good opportunity to extend that depth and find out more about players.
"What better time to do it when you've got time to build on those players you see showing you promise.
"It is an attritional year because of its longevity. It hasn't been as much because of the actual game time that players have played but there is a volume in training that does take its toll."
Ireland have never beaten the Springboks on South African soil in seven attempts and while members of the set-up have declared their desire to win the series, Schmidt is fully aware of the challenge ahead.
While South Africa's new coach Allister Coetzee has selected a new-look squad, the Ireland coach is expecting a ferocious battle.
"I think some of the media comment is that they are going to be a little bit more expansive," he said.
"I thought Heyneke Meyer had them mixing their game up a little bit anyway. I don't expect anything massively different, there is a number of the same personnel there.
"Anywhere they're inexperienced they've got great talent and where they are experienced they've got great talent. That's part of what is the excitement and the challenge."