Smal looks forward to building on promise in tight five
ALTHOUGH the statistics of two defeats, 12 tries conceded, injuries and suspension would suggest otherwise, there have been positive aspects to Ireland's summer trip to the southern hemisphere, which concludes against the Wallabies next weekend.
The four tries scored with 14 men against the All Blacks was put into perspective by Wales' failure to score one with a full complement, while the Welsh losing margin was only five points better than the Irish.
Ireland's subsequent performance against the Maori -- overwhelming favourites -- would, but for a shaky start, undoubtedly have brought victory and the Irish again showed their capacity to play high-tempo, heads-up rugby -- vital if they are to make a meaningful impression at the World Cup next year.
And, though game time may have come about through mishaps to others, this tour has brought through a clutch of players to strengthen squad depth.
Many of these have been in the forwards, with all three hookers impressing on tour, as well as back-up props Marcus Horan and Tony Buckley, while second-rows Ed O'Donoghue and Dan Tuohy and last week's back-row of Chris Henry, Niall Ronan and Rhys Ruddock have also held their hands up.
Good news for forwards coach Gert Smal, who is relishing the opportunity to work with players who did not feature in the November internationals or the Six Nations.
"That's one of the reasons why we went on the Churchill Cup last year," said the South African yesterday. "After last year, I think we knew where our top players were and now they get another opportunity to take it a step up. And again I hope these guys surprise us and they come to the party and believe that they can win.
"Damien Varley made a difference when he came on (against the Maori) and I would also take my mind back to the Munster-Leinster (match), he really played well in that game. You can just imagine if we beat Australia on Saturday what it will mean for these players and for Irish rugby."
Buckley made a big impact when he was called up late for virus-victim John Hayes against the All Blacks, earning rave reviews from hard-to-impress Kiwi commentators. It has led to speculation that he is ready to take over full-time as first-choice tight-head, but Smal is adamant that 36-year-old, 102-cap veteran Hayes still has a key role to play looking ahead to the World Cup.
"Absolutely. Again the challenge is up to him. I don't want to say that certain guys are assured of a place in the World Cup. They must fight for it and the more they fight for it, the better they will play and the better the competition, (which) is all the better for Irish rugby," he said.
"Where we are at the minute with props, you can't discard anyone. We know where the top four or five props are and we have to get the best out of them before the World Cup. I don't think there are any youngsters in the country who will make a difference and get into the World Cup (squad). The guys we have at the moment, we're going to see how much game time we can get for them and technically and tactically up-skill them as best we can."
Smal's imperative for doing what's best for Irish rugby is a constant theme. We have mentioned here on numerous occasions our frustration at foreign imports hindering the development of indigenous talent.
Overseas stars such as Jean de Villiers, BJ Botha, CJ van der Linde and Simon Danielli have denied Irish-qualified players game time in recent seasons and the recent spate of recruitments of the likes of Pedrie Wannenburg, Sam Tuitupou, Wian du Preez and Johann Muller compounds the problem.
The counter-argument is that the provinces need overseas stars to compete and provide squad depth (particularly as Ireland's top players will fall under the Player Management Scheme in the run-in to the World Cup), but with only four professional club teams to choose from, it is a situation that does not help the national side and one that does not exist for New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in the Super 14.
Smal is well aware of the complexities and says it will not be quickly or easily resolved, but he is equally adamant that Irish rugby has to look at ways of furthering its own interests.
"We definitely have to do something about it for the future," he said. "I don't think we can do too much about it for now. We also have to understand the provincial dilemmas. They also need depth.
"But something we have organised here is to give everyone some playing time. For future purposes, I think there needs to be a proper identification programme and maybe a scouting system where we can look for rough diamonds and look for a proper academy for the front-row or the tight five.
"In the meantime, we have to leave it to the provinces to make it work the way they do, as well as the players and potential players getting enough game time with Irish rugby.
"That's a commitment that the provincial coaches are going to have to make together with Declan (Kidney), especially next year. In the meantime, get a proper tight-five academy in place. I haven't discussed it with anyone yet, but it's crucial."
Issues for the future. The immediate challenge is Australia on Saturday. Although the Wallabies pack struggled against England over the past two weekends, Smal says their forwards cannot be underestimated and that experience will be key.
This means impressive teenager Ruddock is unlikely to make the back-row and Smal also confirmed that Tuohy would not be considered for the blindside flanker's role. It points to a back-row of Henry, Shane Jennings and David Wallace, with Ronan -- superb against the Maori -- covering on the bench.
Whoever plays, they face a stern examination against an Australian side smarting from defeat to 'the Poms' last Saturday -- a fact that has not been lost on Smal.
"Absolutely. We are in for a tough game. We're not there to see what they can throw at us. We want to take our game to them as well. That's what makes this such a great opportunity for these players because there is some skill there and they can surprise not just us but themselves as well. That's why you look forward to it," he said.