Saturday 26 May 2018

Afoa weighs in behind Fitzpatrick to fill the void if Ross ruled out for Ireland

John Afoa
John Afoa
David Kelly

David Kelly

When someone with a World Cup winner's medal offers advice for free, it's usually polite to listen.

And, given that Irish rugby coaching seems so willing to bend the knee to Kiwi accents, then why not submit to one of New Zealand's leading players?

So, when All Blacks prop John Afoa recommends Ulster team-mate Declan Fitzpatrick for promotion in the forthcoming November series, should Mike Ross' injury travails persist, then it may be wise to pay attention.

Afoa, whose recovery from surgery on a bicep was followed by the aggravation of a long-standing calf injury – he's expected to be back in action this week against Cardiff Blues – has had plenty of time to watch from the bleachers as his rival has cast aside his own injury problems to flourish.

Even though he emerged from the heroic win in Montpellier with an ice pack on his calf and some tape decorating his nose, Fitzpatrick will be named in what is effectively Joe Schmidt's first competitive Ireland squad this afternoon.

And Afoa believes that he has all the credentials to establish himself in the Ireland team next month.

"Deccy has been great," enthused Afoa of the player who debuted against New Zealand two summers ago when called up at the last minute to replace the injured tom Court.

"I've been injured and he's had a few himself. So, for him to get a few games together – he's had a lot of minutes – is brilliant.

"For a lot of players to prove what they can do, it's all about getting game-time and he's had the opportunity now.

"He's as fit as he's ever been, he's getting around the paddock and with these new scrum laws, he's worked on his technique.

"He's been able to hold his own against Leicester. And he hung in there against Montpellier and didn't disgrace himself.

"So, with Mike Ross being injured, he could have a good chance to get involved. He's a bit smaller than Ross. But he has a great strong back, he gets really low on engagement.

"And when he gets what he wants on the hit, he's a hard man to move. He has a big chest, he's big up top.

"If he gets nice and low, most people will struggle to get underneath him. When you have Rory Best and a big lock behind him, I'm sure he can do a lot of damage for Ireland if given the chance."

Fitzpatrick (30) has been capped five times so far, but injuries over the past 12 months have restricted his international progress.

Indeed, it is not entirely inconceivable that Michael Bent's unseemly and hasty promotion to Ireland recognition would not have happened were it not for an injury to Fitzpatrick.

The English-born prop has, as is the wont of those in his specialised position, become better with the ageing process.

Life also began at 30 for Ross, who was largely ignored in this country until he hit that particular milestone.

Fitzpatrick has demonstrated his worth on the biggest stage and, when Afoa was suspended for the Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh two seasons ago, he was utterly unruffled when stepping into the breach.

He may have to do so on a full-time basis next season as Afoa, also 30, is believed to be contemplating a return to New Zealand next summer for family reasons, although, predictably, French clubs, led by Castres, have been sniffing the wind.

Ruan Pienaar seems to be unique in adopting a virtual 12-month cycle as he targets the 2015 World Cup in England, but there may not be as much enthusiasm in Afoa's eyes to ape the Springbok's zealousness.

"I'm not 100pc sure," he said. "I haven't done too much work on all that sort of stuff, I've been working hard on getting back playing.

"I have two more games before the November break, then I can talk to my family and see what the plan is.

"My next decision is going to be an important one. It will be a life decision for me, it's not all about rugby."

Irish Independent

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