Ireland’s November tour is starting to take on a nightmarish hue. News broke yesterday afternoon that Rory Best and Brian O’Driscoll are out of the series. It robs the team of two of its core leadership group, two of its best players and, crucially, two of its most physical assets ahead of what’s going to be an unflinchingly bruising round of games. At the end of last summer we said that Kidney needed three wins out of three to declare a successful series. He can be cut a bit of slack on that requirement, because the task just got a whole lot tougher.
To compete against the Springboks (and the Pumas), at a very minimum, you need a mean, bruising, beefy pack. Without this, you’ll be shunted aside like a Scarlets scrum [Exhibit A: First Lions Test 2009]. And with that in mind, Ireland are worryingly short of the necessary grizzled brawn in advance of next weekend’s Test, especially after yesterday’s injury news. Rory Best and Brian O’Driscoll join a treatment table already populated by Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien. Stephen Ferris must be a major doubt at this stage, too. That’s five of Ireland’s best players right there; and five – mancrush alert – supreme physical specimens to boot. Given that Ireland don’t naturally produce gentlemen of a Bok-like carriage, we simply don’t have the replacements.
In the front-row, hardman Nordie farmer Besty is a grievous loss. His deputy Risteard O’Ostrais can slot in to an all-Leinster front row, but the reason he has become Irish in the first place is due to the lack of Seth Efrican respect for non-chunky hookers – he’s a fabulous player, but we’re down some major grunt.
Taking the second row, while Paul O’Connell is peerless and as influential as ever in full flow, he is effectively just back from injury – it’s asking a lot to expect the kind of towering match-bending performance that we have become used to. But given it’s Paulie, Ireland will expect.
Alongside him, Ireland have a selection issue. Donnacha Ryan has started the season in lacklustre and anonymous fashion… and on the blindside. Matches seem to be passing him by, and he is playing out of his favoured position, and even if he is selected, he has always been short of Bakkies/Shawsie-type oof in the tight.
It’s Stakhanov who has partnered POC in the Heineken Cup, and he has looked somewhat revitalised after last season’s sustained mediocrity. But again, he was never quite at the highest level physically in any case – his main asset was his always his nuisance factor rather than his bulk. That said, his experience is in his favour given the absentee list. Dan Tuohy is coming to the boil nicely, but hasn’t reached the performance level that got him selected in New Zealand last year. We’d like to see Mike McCarthy get the nod for this assignment – he’s a tough and abrasive natural 4 and might be the horse for the Springbok course. O’Callaghan is probably favourite to get the nod. But whatever way you look at it, it’s a four-horse race and all of the options are a little bit ho-hum.
The picture doesn’t improve much on the flanks - of the first-choice pair, Fez is surely out of consideration now after sitting out three games, and SOB is still weeks from a comeback. It’s the same problem as in the second row: there are decent players available, but are they of the necessary physicality to face the Bok monsters?
POM has been first deputy of late, but he is another who hasn’t started the season that well. He has been shunted back and forth across the row and, skilful player though he is, isn’t quite of the required bulk at this stage in his career. Kevin McLoughlin is probably the most natural fit for the role, but – recurring theme! – has started the season at such a fairly sluggish pace.
Chris Henry should be locked down at 7, and is in splendid form, but he is another who’s not a particularly beefy build and is more of a ‘nuisance value’ player. Perhaps his provincial team-mate, NWJMB Iain Henderson should be considered on the blindside. He is the one option you’d trust to have the physicality for the task. Huge step-up, sure, and maybe he isn’t ready, but he has passed every test with flying colours to date. It’s a wild card worth giving some serious thought to.
At the back of the scrum, thankfully, Jamie Heaslip looks like he is approaching something like his best form. The four men in front of him are likely to be low on the type of prime beef that South Africa trade on, so he’ll need to show some serious leadership – it’s time to audition for that Lion No.8 jersey. Without him playing well, we cannot see Ireland coming close to breaking even up front.
Whatever way you slice up the back-five, the team sheet is not going to put the frighteners up South Africa, or Argentina for that matter. Kidney’s first task in camp should be to kindly ask his three remaining world class forwards, Paul O’Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy to perform with the ferocity of rabid wolves. Forget the plush environs of Carton House; lock them into a cage together for the next week and throw them bits of raw horsemeat to fight over, then let them loose on the Boks…