Smal 'very excited' by Henderson and Kilcoyne
After what he has termed the most "difficult two weeks" of his four-year association with Ireland, former World Cup winner Gert Smal firmly believes that his side could be on the verge of creating something special.
It would seem to be a unique juncture to make such a stirring statement, with Ireland enduring their worst losing run in 14 years and struggling to fill the gaps left by injuries to so many of their leading characters.
Nevertheless, with such bristling talents as Iain Henderson and Dave Kilcoyne set to make their first starts in the non-cap international against Fiji at Thomond Park this weekend, Smal is undeterred by the headline figures that suggest irreversible decline.
"This is a special group," he says. "It's a different group to what we have had in the past. They've got a different ambition and they also want to create their own legacy, as they have said themselves.
"With good players coming in and out because of injuries, the excitement and ambition they have to create their own legacy is quite important.
"That's what I'm experiencing at the moment and there's a lot of positive energy around."
Even defeat to South Africa, notwithstanding a number of promising individual performances which were ultimately undone by a ragged collective approach, specifically in attack, didn't dampen Smal's enthusiasm.
"It was just the ambition to beat them," he said. "The urgency and the pride that they have. I always talk about the Irish fire, there is something special about the Irish.
"I haven't coached in other countries, but coming from South Africa it is difficult to put words on it. There is something very special about the Irish, the way they go about their work, their ambition, their fieriness.
"The South Africans won't stand back, but neither will the Irish and that is why you get some players climbing into each other at certain stages. It is nothing different."
Smal, who admittedly invested an inordinate amount of energy – matched by the IRFU in extensive monetary terms – on prop flop Tony Buckley, pinpointed Kilcoyne and Henderson and as two breakthrough talents, as well as the much older second-row Mike McCarthy.
"I am very excited by Dave. He is still cutting his teeth in the squad I think, but the last two weeks he has been working really hard. He is an exciting little player.
"His nickname is Killer. That's what you experience with him, in the runs, in the practice, the way he does things.
"He looks like a little killer. He is a great little player. We also have Stephen Archer with us now in the squad, they are both exciting little players that we can work with in the future.
"Henderson is a player we've been looking at for a long time, because we know all about him from the U-20s.
"Then at the beginning of the year he played one game for the Ulster Ravens and I knew that this was going to be a special player.
"It's important to see how he develops, and how he gets his confidence up. There's a lot of things that I like in his make-up.
"His size, obviously. He's a nice ball-carrier. We're talking about ball-carriers; we have had Sean O'Brien, Stephen Ferris and Paul O'Connell, who in his own way carried a fair amount of ball, which gave us a fair amount of momentum.
"But I think definitely he's (Henderson) one of those that's going to be very special in the future if he's managed right.
"The main thing with Mike, and this is something we've discussed in the past, is that we want him to pack behind the tight-head. We need that aggressive type of lock behind your tight-head because that's where you want to take the opposition on. If you get troubles with your tight-head and you don't have power behind him, then you'll really struggle.
"His technique is very good, his speed is very good but what we are trying to do with him now, and Connacht as well, is that he plays a little bit more behind the tight-head side – and the more he plays there, the better he's going to be at scrummaging as well."