Tourists settle down to business as battle looms

Wed, May 27, 1998, 01:00

After the frivolity of day one (perhaps a ruse for inquisitive hosts?) the Irish kept their shirts on in Cape Town yesterday and built up an impressive sweat. Next Saturday's demanding tour opener against Boland in Wellington is coming more sharply into focus, and few of Ireland's big hitters will be kept in reserve.

This may not be a Test, but it is a litmus test for the tour as a whole and, in that respect, could be the most important match of the tour. "It won't be a shadow Test team, but we're very conscious of the need to put out one of our strongest sides and, we hope, to get the tour off to a good start," commented Warren Gatland after yesterday's session.

Paul Wallace's groin strain and Malcolm O'Kelly's knee injury mean they will be kept out of the reckoning for this one. With Eric Miller and Jeremy Davidson at home and Keith Wood yet to arrive, the South Africans will thus readily note the absence of all four Irish Lions from last summer, not to mention the young tiger O'Kelly.

Still, it should be a fairly strong selection which, judging from yesterday's work-out, could fall along the following lines: Conor O'Shea; James Topping, Jonathan Bell, Mark McCall, Denis Hickie; Eric Elwood, Conor McGuinness; Reggie Corrigan, Allen Clarke, Peter Clohessy, Paddy Johns, Gabriel Fulcher, Dion O'Cuin neagan, Victor Costello and Andy Ward.

Gatland admits he doesn't know too much about Boland other than that Nick Mallett instigated their emergence in recent years while cutting his coaching teeth there. Boland finished third in the seven-team section of the Vodacom Cup just finished, and, more to the point, will have all their Super 12 players back for their strongest selection of the season.

No matter the opposition, though, basic standards apply in South Africa which only New Zealand rivals in the world game. "We're playing one of the greatest rugby nations in the world," Gatland said, "and it doesn't matter who you're playing against, you're playing against quality players who are quick, who are physical and are experienced. There's no easy game and we're very aware of that.

"Everyone's writing us off, so we're conscious of getting the tour off on a right note. But we're under no illusions. Every game is going to be a high pressure game for us."

Indeed, when not distracted by the World Cup preparations of "Bafana Bafana" or the future of the mercurial James Small (seemingly now out of the Springbok reckoning and possibly on his way from Western Province, perhaps to England), the local media are far from shaken or stirred by the Irish tourists. "Boks to feast on Irish stew" reckons the Cape Times.

Which may be no harm, regardless of the respectful noises already coming from Mallett. Gatland was even slightly dumbfounded yesterday when asked what style of play Ireland would be adopting. Without giving away too much, the Irish coach re-affirmed that learning to walk before running remains a Gatland credo; establishing strong basics remains his underlying coaching motto.

"There are a number of things that we're trying to work on as a side. Obviously, we're trying to get our set-pieces to be strong, and to be strong defensively. After that, we'd like to move the ball as much as any other team when the opportunity arises. Perhaps initially we'll be a little more conservative, but we'll just see how the games go."

Donal Lenihan makes the significant point that Irish rugby has had little contact with South African teams for some time. No Irish side has visited these shores since 1981, save for a stopover by a Development squad a few years ago. This adds to the mystique surrounding South African rugby and perhaps contributes to an inferiority complex which the Irish management have been trying to eradicate quickly.

The squad seems mentally strong and physically fresh. Much of this is the power of positive thinking. Fatigue, as Paul Wallace says, is a state of mind. Afternoon sleep is another optional extra.

Certainly there is a more relaxed air than prevailed during last summer's Development tour, of which there are a healthy 11 survivors - a fair return from such an inexperienced squad just one year on.

While it may be stretching things to say that a squad is only as good as its weakest link, unlike 12 months ago, when some of the stragglers may as well have been tourists, every one of this 34-man squad has more of a hands-on role through participating on one of the various players' committees, be it "entertainment" or "laundry", as Gatland seeks to invest the players with more responsibility.

A players' compilation tape booms out of a ghetto blaster at pitch side during warm ups or warm downs. This was unthinkable a year ago, almost as much as excessive laughing. It's interesting to note, bearing all this in mind, that the Gatland-Lenihan-Danaher team, aged 32, 33 and 36 respectively, must be the youngest in the history of international rugby - anywhere. In tune and in touch, they've been there and bought the T-shirts fairly recently.

Because it comes at the end of a long, hard season, daily work is limited to one morning session, with gym work in the afternoon optional.

Such was the morning haze yesterday you could have bumped into Table Mountain with your nose, but by the end of a sweat-soaked session the imposing vertical cliffs which overlook the Villagers club off a street by the name of Lansdowne Road had broken through in all their glory.

The session focused on working off quick ruck ball through a variety of target runners, either through short popped balls off the half-backs or through the forwards picking and going. It was fairly intense, impressive and error-free stuff, before the forwards broke off for some line-out work and the backs for some running drills. The absence of scrum machines means a change of venue this morning.

This afternoon, the players will take the short cable ride to the peak of Table Mountain, an airy 1,006 feet above sea level and the surrounding clouds. For any visitor, it has to be done. Even for the vertically challenged, it's spectacularly dizzying but memorable to sit above the clouds, breathe in the thin air and sip a tinnie. As the saying goes, it's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it.