O'Connell looks ready to lift the burden
RUGBY: IRELAND CAMPThe sight of Paul O’Connell, along with Cian Healy, bounding out on to the pitch at Carton House yesterday before coming through the afternoon’s Ireland training session unscathed will have been a timely boost for all present.
Having lost Stephen Ferris to compound the absence of regular captain Brian O’Driscoll and sometime captain Rory Best, an increasingly frayed Ireland squad could ill afford to lose another Lions captain.
No decision has been made yet, according to team manager Mick Kearney, regarding the Ireland captaincy, all the more so as O’Connell had been in some doubt until responding well to treatment over the weekend and, a la Healy, will be monitored over the course of the week. But for all the speculation about a new captain last week, one imagines O’Connell will lead the side out against the Springboks this Saturday.
In any event, he’ll be a rallying point as ever. “He’s a world-class player,” said his long-time team-mate and now coach Anthony Foley, who has been drafted in to work with Ireland’s defence. “He’s a leader. He’s a talismanic figure within the group. He’s one of those guys that when I was playing, I liked to see him tog out beside me. And when I’m coaching him, I like to see him in the changing-room running the rule over the charges. It gives everyone confidence.”
That said, with O’Driscoll and Best hors de combat in an era of relative transition, the core of lieutenants are having to assume more leadership responsibility, which has intrigued Foley.
“We’re at the stage in development where other guys are emerging as well. Others are taking on that mantle. So that’s very interesting for me, to see these young guys coming through, the value they put on the jersey, the value they put on the importance of team over individual. It’s a good combination at the moment. It’s very interesting the way the squad is, in terms of senior guys being injured and others having to step up.
“You’re looking at (Keith) Earls, (Gordon) D’Arcy, Tommy Bowe and players like that, guys who would have been very quiet when I was playing with them. But they’re taking on the mantle now, leading. It’s good. It’s refreshing. Heartening,” said Foley with a smile.
Another development to emerge from yesterday is Simon Zebo is amongst those being seriously considered to fill the number 15 jersey in the absence of Rob Kearney, with the latter’s namesake, and Ireland team manager, explaining that the presence of Denis Hurley, Earls, Bowe and Zebo in the squad meant they were sufficiently “well covered” not to call in Felix Jones after successive starts since his comeback from injury. Earls remains the likeliest deputy for O’Driscoll at outside centre.
Pressure on prop
Nothing Foley and Kearney said yesterday dispelled the notion Michael Bent is likely to be on the bench, despite the addition of Stephen Archer to the squad.
Ulster back-up tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick hadn’t rejoined the squad as of yesterday, as he was still undergoing “return to play protocols” after suffering concussion in Ulster’s win away to the Dragons last Friday week, only his second outing of the season, and Foley dismissed the notion the commotion over Bent’s inclusion will put more pressure on the New Zealand-born prop.
“I wouldn’t imagine he is listening to former internationals talking about him. Michael is Irish qualified and that gives him every right in the world to play for Ireland. It’s not his problem. He has shown in the videos, the ITM Cup, he is good enough, fit enough and strong enough, so why not avail of that opportunity if it’s a position that needs filling and there is a guy out there of that calibre? You would be foolish not to.”
Foley has also re-joined an Ireland squad still nursing something of a hangover from the New Zealand 60-0 defeat, although he sees the desire for redemption as a positive.
“The guys that played in that Test match, will have that ringing in the backs of their heads every night they go to bed thinking about it, because it is a horrible place to be . . . What you look for is the next time out, making sure you can right that wrong, and it’s a massive opportunity for the 23 who go out to put that to bed and not so much forget about it but make it a driving force for you through the game and through the campaign.”
The Springboks, as much as ever under Heyneke Meyer, will be intent on pulverising Ireland physically. “They want to run straight over you,” said Foley. “Other teams will try and do that as well, but you’ve got to front up there and you’ve got to make sure you can repeat it time and time again and not get bored of it. You’ve got to make sure you’re first up off the ground, make sure we’re constantly defending with 15 men on our feet, we’re constantly making sure that we are working hard on our kicking game on both sides of the ball.”
Also denied a host of frontliners, South Africa too look like a team in transition, but that’s not the way Foley sees it. “No, I see them as one of the best teams in the world coming to our home patch, going to take us on head on and we need to front up to it.”