Walking wounded giving Kidney headache
SOUTH AFRICA'S fractured build-up to their November tour has been well documented, but the extent of the challenge facing Ireland coach Declan Kidney as he prepares to take on the world champions became abundantly clear in Limerick yesterday.
As well as frontline injury absentees Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery and Tomas O'Leary, ongoing concerns surrounding Brian O'Driscoll, Keith Earls, Gordon D'Arcy and Rory Best are a major worry, as those are four players you would expect to be in the squad against the Springboks.
If that is not disruptive enough to training this week, you also have the eight players who returned to their provinces last night ahead of this weekend's Magners League fixtures.
"It's not a perfect scenario," acknowledged Ireland team manager Paul McNaughton. "That would be working with 30 players for two weeks before the game.
"It puts pressure on coaches, as every coach wants their 30 best players to run off their moves and defensive lines against their peers, but because of the extra (Magners) fixtures that is no longer possible."
It would seem logical to assume that the players returning to the Magners League are unlikely to be in the match squad on Saturday week. However, two scrum-halves, Peter Stringer and Isaac Boss, are in that number, which suggests that Eoin Reddan is in pole position to start against the world champions with one of Stringer or Boss on the bench.
Similarly, the fact that John Hayes is back with his province points towards Cian Healy and Tony Buckley starting in the front row, with Tom Court and Mike Ross jostling for the supporting role. The other returnees include Shane Horgan and the Connacht trio of Brett Wilkinson, John Muldoon and Gavin Duffy, all of whom would have been outside bets for involvement against South Africa.
Kidney has repeatedly stressed the importance of co-operation with the provinces under the international player management scheme and that message was hammered home yesterday as well. The extent to which the provinces exerted influence this week is unclear but, given the injury concerns surrounding O'Driscoll, Earls and D'Arcy, keeping Johne Murphy in the squad rather than sending him back to Munster would have been beneficial -- particularly given that the Kildare man has yet to miss a game this season.
"We are always looking for the best balance and it has caused a lot of discussion," said Kidney. "We won't get everything we like and neither will the provinces, so it is important that we work together, otherwise the whole thing will fall down. The Irish solution works pretty well so we will keep at it."
The upshot for Kidney is that he has around 22 fully fit players to work with this week, while half a dozen provincial Academy players -- whose names were not revealed -- will join up with the squad today.
Another addition to the party is former All Black Greg Feek, who has been brought in for the November internationals with a brief to help out with Ireland's scrummaging. The 35-year-old New Plymouth man won 10 caps for New Zealand between 1999 and 2001 and has been working in a consultancy capacity with Leinster this season, with ex-Ireland prop Reggie Corrigan looking after the development side.
Feek's overseeing of a Leinster scrum which has impressed against all-comers this season caught the eye of Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal and Kidney said the move reflects the greater emphasis on scrummaging at provincial level this season.
"I spoke to Gert about him (Feek) and he liked what he saw so we are giving it a go," said Kidney. "I think the scrum side of things is having a greater impact on (provincial) management and the fact we have to build up indigenous props is part of it as well."
While the various complications surrounding this week's training camp took up most of yesterday's press conference, there was still time to assess the prospect of taking on a Springbok side still smarting from last year's 15-10 defeat at Croke Park and one that is determined to end the year on a positive note following a disastrous Tri Nations campaign.
Ireland have their own five-game losing run to reverse, which means not looking beyond November 6 and bringing an individual focus to the subsequent Tests against Samoa, New Zealand and Argentina.
"I see the World Cup as the long-term goal and there are a lot of plans in place, but that is 12 months away," explained Kidney. "Those who know me will know that there are a few things rattling around in my head, so let's see how we go in the first game and take it from there.
"We had a good win last year, but it looks like they will have Juan Smith and Bakkies Botha back. We played well, but as for how well South Africa played, we'll let them answer that.
"You can see their potency from the two games against Australia in the Tri Nations when they made slow starts, but hauled the points back. They played for what, 60 minutes? If they play for 80 minutes they can show what they can do.
"From reading what's been said and with the Lions trip, there's nothing worse than a wounded Springbok."