Daunting end of tour task for Ireland
THIS being the dry season in Western Samoa, where temperatures of late have been regularly around the 30 degrees mark, only one thing could happen following the Irish Development party's arrival in Apia at midnight on Wednesday (midday Thursday Irish time).
It rained, in torrents, and hasn't stopped since.
Indeed, the wind is starting to kick up and there are reports of a hurricane warning for American Samoa about 90 miles away.
They're calling it Cyclone Kelly, naturally. A visit to Apia Park yesterday, venue for Saturday's meeting with Western Samoa at 4 p.m. local time (Sunday 4 a.m. Irish time), showed a pitch layered with a film of water and highlighted by grey puddles.
The ground certainly wasn't playable yesterday, and it seems distinctly possible that it won't be come the appointed time either.
"There's no way that I'll endanger the players," vows Pat Whelan protectively, though he accepts that ultimately this decision is entirely the preserve of New Zealand's third-ranked referee Glenn Walstrom.
There's a chance, of course, that the Irish players will be endangered regardless of the weather. Whelan's letter to the Western Samoan Union, akin to a plea for leniency, doesn't appear to have cut much ice with the team's coach Bryan Williams. "No great problem," was his response to the Whelan missive which attempted to point out that this was a much-weakened Irish `A' side.
Accordingly, Williams has selected near enough a full-strength side, with the exceptions of the injured winger Brian Lima and the centre George Leaupepe, who will be on the bench. That leaves 11 of the side which beat a first-choice Ireland by 25-40 last November at Lansdowne Road, plus that fine flanker Junior Paramore, who came on as a sub that night.
All available form guides are distinctly ominous. The Samoans retain all but two of the side which beat Northland by 40-13 last weekend. Northland, it will be remembered, beat the Irish by 69-16 in the tour opener, and employed 13 of that starting XV against the Samoans; which, applying a crude mathematical yardstick, points to an 80-point differential.
True, the Irish have improved threefold in both their defensive organisation and, more pertinently, their willingness to put their heads on the line when tackling. Diplomatically, Williams maintains the Irish "have improved quite a lot on tour," since he attended the 74-15 loss to the Academy, "in the ball retention phase, trying to play the game at a bit more speed, and they have a better defence."
However, Williams admitted the Samoans too will come on from their rusty first get-together against Northland, "particularly in the scrum".
The Irish side contains only one of the team beaten by the Samoans, namely Rob Henderson. That, of course, may not be an entirely bad thing. Henderson himself was practically extradicted by the Irish selectors for that off-colour international debut before relaunching his Irish career and showing what a good centre he is on this tour.
Nonetheless, this Irish side contains only three other internationals - Conor O'Shea at full-back, the twice-capped Brian O'Meara and the captain Gabriel Fulcher.
The Irish team selected by Brian Ashton and Pat Whelan for this tour finale re-affirms many of the winners and losers amongst the original panel. It shows just two changes from the team beaten 41-10 by the Maoris in Palmerston North, with Malcolm O'Kelly having his turn as Fulcher's second-row partner.
Less predictably, Niall Woods has been omitted from the three-quarter line, with Kevin Maggs switching from outside centre to the wing so as to accommodate the return of Michael Lynch. This is a hard, yet damning, verdict on Woods' displays in New Zealand, and although he was hardly tested defensively or afforded any worthwhile attacking opportunities against the Maoris, it would seem he has not been forgiven for missed tackles earlier on tour.
The Irish management may have the imposing presence of Vaaiga Tuigamala in mind bye moving the defensively tougher Maggs to the wing.
This calculated gamble could still backfire, all the more so given the Rob Henderson-Maggs partnership was the strongest midfield defence yet seen on tour while Lynch must have been debilitated by the medication he required for an eye infection which detained him in hospital overnight after the Maori match.
Whereas Marcus Dillon, say, has been confined to less than a game, and Alan McGrath to two, Henderson will be starting his fifth game and effectively playing his sixth of seven on tour. For Richard Governey there's been no respite, this being his fifth start and seventh appearance.
Brian O'Meara emerges as clearly the pick of the three scrum-halves on tour in the management's eyes, given this will be his fourth appearance.
Remarkably, Stephen McIvor has not started a game since the tour opener, where a couple of wayward passes in rare attacking positions have cost him dear. This is despite successfully replacing Andy Matchett against both Bay of Plenty and King Country where, it is not unreasonable to suggest, the Irish might have won one or both games had McIvor been picked from the start.
All of which underlines Ashton's preference for players with sound technique. O'Meara is not as renowned for his vocal leadership from behind the pack, or for the sheer pugnacity McIvor brings to the position, but he can pass accurately and quickly all day long.
Up front, Fulcher has been worked to the bone, his stature as the most experienced and reliable forward in the light of seven internationals withdrawing or departing from the original squad earning him his sixth game out of seven.
Diplomatically again, Williams maintains that "the Irish will want to finish their tour on as high a note as possible."
There'll be about 10,900-plus filling Apia Park to capacity in anticipation of Inga's home "test" debut and the start of Manu Samoa's short international season. They'll expect a convincing home win and they've every right to. Which ever inhospitable way the climate blows, if the Irish again let the Samoans get away early, this has all the appearances of a miss-match.